For Sabah Mehdi, former Mr Iraq, the meeting with his idol, Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Arnold Fitness Expo in Columbus Ohio, was a long time coming, but it was worth the 33 year wait. Not only is Sabah Mehdi’s gym in Iraq named after Arnold, but so is his son.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, the first year Mr Mehdi tried to make it to the Arnold Expo, he couldn’t get a passport. Later that year, Mehdi’s gym was gutted by two truck bombs. Last year, curfews prevented him from making the flight, even though Mr Schwarzenegger himself had paid for the tickets. This year, in perhaps one of the most poignant stories from the Expo, Mehdi has finally made it. And how! The diminutive 49 year old has been hanging out with the Big Guy almost non-stop since his arrival.
“Weâ€™ve actually tried to bring him over here for three years now,” Schwarzenegger said yesterday, “but every time there was always something, because as you can imagine, in America to bring someone from Iraq they think that heâ€™s strapped with bombs or something like that to blow up the building. So, everyone was freaking out, and just when weâ€™d get him to the plane, theyâ€™d say we need one more paper from the State Department. It was always something. But this time it finally worked.”
The Austrian Oak, humbled?
“Weâ€™re ecstatic about the fact that we have him here with us. Heâ€™s such a dedicated bodybuilder, and he has a gym and everything, so this will give him energy now for the next 10 years, and then weâ€™ll bring him back,” Schwarzenegger said.
Mehdi’s own story is nothing short of amazing. Like everywhere else, bodybuilding in Iraq reached its heyday in the 1970s. In 1980, the 20-year old Shiite won a special gold medal as the youngest contestant in the Mr Asia competition. He won Iraq’s national championships every year until 1990. By 1990, Mehdi would claim both the Mr Iraq and Mr Asia titles.
Open to all comers: Gender equity training.
In the 1980s, Mehdi also worked as a trainer with the Iraqi armed forces. In the early 1990s he was personal trainer to Uday and Qusay, Saddam’s sons. He also put the Dictator himself through his paces, but when Saddam offered Mehdi a handgun as a gift, the peace-loving Shiite declined. Were the baddies geared? Mehdi is both too professional and too cautious to say.
Saddam’s nephew had been installed as President of the Iraqi Bodybuilding union and was perhaps after a piece of Mehdi’s thriving import-export business in supplements. Mehdi’s gym and Mehdi himself had come under increased government scrutiny for his Western and Jewish connections. Government agents routinely read his mail.
An Iraqi hopeful.
“Who is this Ben Weider? And why are you getting mail from a Jew? ” an agent asked. Mehdi still has the letter. It is a routine inquiry about his subscription to Flex magazine.
Mehdi fell from grace and was forced to flee the country, leaving his family behind. He hid in Malaysia making secret visits back to his family. He did not return permanently to Baghdad until 2001. He leased a new gym and because Iraqis were not allowed to use western names, initially called it the Elegant Body House. But the dust had barely settled around the toppled statue of the dictator before Mehdi renamed his gym the Arnold Classic. Inside it remains a virtual shrine to the Austrian Oak, with posters, clippings, numerous bodybuilding mags and arcane Arnoldiana. Near a poster of the icon is a sign that warns, “No Talk of religion or politics. Only sport.
Near another sign is a line from the Koran, “God does not oppress people, but people oppress themselves.
Mehdi training the next generation
In the Arnold Classic gym, according to journalist Annia Ciezadlo “Kurds train alongside Christians, Sunnies spot Shiites and freginers pump iron with the toughest Iraqi strongmen.”
Nick Berg used to be a regular, but chances are you’ll also catch a couple of Shiite gals who brave the long bus trip to pump iron beside the men.
Since 2004, on July 30, Schwarzenegger’s birthday, Mehdi holds a bodybuilding competition partly to raise money for his embattled gym. There are over 400 entries. Mehdi has since been re-instated with the Iraqi National bodybuilding team for the Mr Asia competition and his supplement business is up and running again. He’s still waiting for Schwarzenegger to visit and perhaps sponsor his gym. Who knows. Stranger things have happened.
Like Mehdi’s correspondence with the Austrian Oak that goes back to the 1970s when the then scrawny Iraqi competitor wrote to his hero and got an answer addressed to “my only friend among the Arabs.”
The boys in front of The Arnold Classic gym, Bagdad.
Thirty years later he watched the gubernatorial elections in Sacremento. “When he won,” says Mehdi. “I was crying with joy.”
Another big moment came with another letter from Arnold thanking Mehdi for his support and congratulating him on his gym. Even more, “I am truly honoured to share my name with your son.” What a guy!