Afghan weightlifters loosen up their sport

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In a country famous for the
body-shrouding burqa and the Islamic puritanism of the former
Taliban rulers, a gym's advertisements are jolting: a shirtless man
in bikini briefs with bulging arm and abdominal muscles rippling,
his massive chest flexed.
Gyms for bodybuilders are opening all over Kabul. Growing
numbers of men are working out in places like Super Gym and Afghan
Gold's that have set up shop in abandoned war-ravaged buildings and
new high-rises.
Sayed Mohammed Payanda, secretary-general of Afghanistan's
National Bodybuilding Federation, says bodybuilding is second in
popularity only to soccer in Afghanistan.
All over the city, hand-painted Arnold Schwarzeneggers and other
iron-pumping heroes point down alleys to gyms that have sprouted up
behind crowded markets and next to red-carpeted mosques.
At every gym, patrons leave their shoes by the door. Some are
state of the art, with imported computer-monitored running
machines. Other gyms lack electricity, and the men pump battered
barbells in the flickering light of lanterns. They square their
shoulders and pose in front of cracked mirrors.
Bodybuilding is a long tradition in Afghanistan's male-dominated
Even under the Taliban, bodybuilding was allowed, but it was
tightly controlled: Men had to exercise and compete wearing
T-shirts and traditional baggy pants. Long beards were mandatory.
Now, young men work out while showing off bare chests and flat
stomachs. Competitors on stage strip to their briefs and oil their