With its high levels of fighting and narcotics production, Helmand in recent became a byword for bad news. But between the negative headlines comes the inspiring story of bodybuilding champion Shukerullah Helmandi,
Proud moment for Afghanistan: Shukerullah Helmandi is awarded gold at the South Asian Bodybuilding Championship. (Photos: Afghanistan National Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation)
It’s not often that someone living in the heart of a war zone emerges as a world-class athlete, but Helmand Province can boast such a man. Two even.
A truly local product, from his birthplace to his name, Shukerullah Helmandi fulfilled a childhood ambition to become a leading bodybuilder. He twice won the Mr Afghanistan title and then in June triumphed at the 8th South Asian Bodybuilding Championship in Bhutan.
The Afghan team including Helmandi and fellow Helmand Province bodybuilder Zemerai Popal beat out rivals from eleven countries to take the gold in the 90kg and 85kg categories. And in the case of the 26-year-old Helmandi, victory was all the sweeter because of the obstacles that were stacked against him in the preceeding years.
“I used to get extremely anxious about my financial situation - while other athletes were eating good food I often went hungry," he said. "What I did have was my resolve to do my best, I would continually tell myself that one day I would make my mark. Now I have.”
Long path to the winning spot
Helmandi began to devote himself to sports in the late 1990s when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and created restrictions for many athletes. Unable to train as he wanted, he instead played football, which was allowed by the regime, provided that the players wore long shorts.
“When the Taliban regime collapsed, we moved home from the Nawzad district of Helmand to the city of Lashkar Gah, where I worked in a garage and exercised while continuing my school education,” said Helmandi, who is remembered by his teachers as being quiet and diligent.
“The clock was ticking, circumstances were harsh. Earning 100 to 200 afghanis (2-4 US dollars) a day I couldn’t solve my family’s problems, let alone enable myself to train properly. But I still exercised in a boxing club in the morning and at a bodybuilding club in the afternoon."
"What I had was my resolve to do my best. I would continually tell myself that one day I'd make my mark. Now I have.”
Having a crop of titles to his name today, Helmandi might have grounds to boast. But he is modest in his bearing and, despite his hulking frame, somehow remains unobtrusive, just as his past contemporaries remember him.
"Shukerullah was very calm and never had any problems with his neighbours,” recalled Ali Ahmad, who lives close by. “We didn’t see him around much, he was either in his workshop, in school or doing sports."
This isn't to say that everybody is a fan: Helmandi says his success has caused resentment among bodybuilding rivals, and he hints without elaborating that the local Taliban are also not too happy about his Afghan flag-waving profile.
Undeterred, his consistent victories in provincial events paved his way to compete in Kabul, where he twice won the Mr Afghanistan title that he still holds.
Then, as his home province became embroiled in another summer of fighting, Helmandi went to wage his own struggle in Bhutan, culminating in his gold medal performance.
Vanguard of a vast pool of athletes
The title was well deserved by someone characterized by his “boundless sincerity and workaholic performance,” said fellow Afghan Zubairullah Mohsin, the secretary general of the South Asian Bodybuilding Federation.
Zubairullah Mohsin and a car engine-savvy bodybuilding champion.
But it was also a solid team effort. Overall, the Afghan national team came first in the championship, bringing home two golds, three silvers and one bronze.
These titles can help nurture the competetive athletic environment in the country, said Mohsin, who also heads the Afghanistan National Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation.
“Everyday in gyms all over Afghanistan men sweat and struggle, determined to develop more muscular bodies and gain powerful physiques,” he said.
“There is no doubt that we have in Afghanistan young sportsmen and athletes who are of top class material with the potential to become champions and secure victory in international competitions. However, in a country that is struggling to find its feet after decades of war and crippling poverty, much work and funding are needed to achieve this.”
Despite the prevalence of the sport - Afghan cities and towns are saturated with tiny gyms - sponsorship deals are still few and far between, even for athletes of Helmandi’s caliber. So some state assistance is deemed necessary to get Afghan bodybuilders into the big league.
“To be frank, Afghan bodybuilders are not getting any kind of support.,” said Mohsin. “It is therefore essential that we recruit government support in taking the sport to higher standards of excellence in Afghanistan, as without it, this simply cannot be achieved.”
Back to work
Illustrating the point, Helmandi went straight back to work at the car repair shop after his return from Bhutan.
“I work in the garage from 8am to 5pm and then from 6pm I exercise for two hours at the club,” said Helmandi, who still doesn’t have the means to buy the nutritional food he ideally needs. But he typically tries to eat 15 eggs, a kilo of chicken and some additional high-protein food in a 24-hour period to keep his 90kg body in shape.
He’s hoping for an offer of long-term material assistance from the Helmand provincial government, even if it’s just covering his transport costs to attend events.
One would think that the local authorities would seize upon the symbolic value of homegrown champions and put some financial muscle behind their protein-fuelled ones. Especially since Helmandi and Popal both make a point of publicly urging young people to shun drugs and develop healthy bodies.
In fact, material recognition has started to happen, according to Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal.
“We do whatever we can to persuade youths in the province to take part in sports," said Mangal, who somewhat disputed Helmandi’s claim of being totally neglected.
“For example, in order to persuade Shukerullah to continue his sports, the provincial government gave him a plot of land in a newly inaugurated part of Lashkar Gah when he returned from the Asian competitions,” the governor added.
Whatever the case, the athlete is clearly not content to rest on his Mr Afghanistan or South Asian laurels.
“If I am supplied with [the facilities of] a good club and good food, I will be able to compete globally, and serve up more of the same results as the Asian competitions,” he said.