Wednesday 23 April 2014

Brawn or Brains?

My bodybuilding and weightlifting career at a glance
(The following is the first of three posts Fawaz Najia had ready but did not have time to publish before he lost his battle with cancer on April 20)

Building a chiseled, steely and toned physique and clinching the “Mr. Lebanon” title at 17 took me just under five years of training.

All I did meanwhile was to study at the Collège du Sacré-Coeur, train at the Cercle de la Jeunesse Catholique, eat healthy and sleep. Weekend leisure was rationed. It was a movie outing to Martyrs’ Square in winter or a swimming spell in summer at the Bain Militaire or the Saint Simon. They were Beirut’s answer above all others to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica.

I embarked on my bodybuilding journey at Elie David’s gym at the CJC at age 13. Cycling was the only sport I engaged in earlier. In the years when my parents rented a summerhouse from the Chidiacs in Bikfaya, I used to cycle daily to Dhour el Shouair either direct or through Bhannes.

David provided me with professional expertise, support and motivation. He customized my three weekly workout programs to suit my age. He determined what equipment I used, how many sets I did and the number of repetitions.  He changed these as I grew up, working my way from the beginner phase to the intermediate and the advanced. In each phase, the focus was all-inclusive – neck, shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, shoulders, chest, back, waist, abdominals, quadriceps and calves.

"Mr. Lebanon" 1953
David’s coaching and recommendation of specialized magazines on muscle building, healthy eating and dangers of overtraining helped drastically improve my physique.

There were no steroids, vitamin supplements or fat blasting pills to gulp and no muscle T-shirts or special workout shorts to parade. There were no sophisticated gym and fitness equipment to use either.

Healthy eating meant full fat milk, eggs (boiled or poached), fish, pulses and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Personally, I had a great weakness for fresh sugarcane juice, which was more refreshing than nutritious. Three times a week, I would cap my workouts by walking to a juice bar opposite Roxy Cinema at the mouth of Beirut’s commercial center. The 20-25 square meters bar offered the glass of fresh apple, orange, strawberry, grape or sugarcane juice at a standard price of LL 0.25. The biggest piece of equipment at the counter was a sugarcane juicer machine made in Egypt. It worked manually but broke down more often than not.

Gym wear was a swim brief. You carried it back and forth together with a shower towel. Both were rolled into a tubular wet swimming bag. If you carried one it meant you were almost surely a gym member.

Gym equipment was also plain: high and parallel bars, rings, a climbing rope, training benches, dumbbells and barbells, weights and mats (chiefly for abdominals training routines).

I secured the “Mr. Lebanon” title in my height category at a national competition held in April 1953 at the Rivoli Cinema on Martyrs’ Square. (Title winners in the two other categories were Malih Alewan and Mohammed Mortada). Some months later, I joined a bodybuilding exhibition at the Dunia cinema, also on Martyrs’ Square. There I received an honorary medal for sports from Mrs. Salma Bissar, wife of Kamel Mroue, founder of two Beirut dailies, al-Hayat and The Daily Star.

From bodybuilding to weightlifting...

... and breaking records
That’s when I starting wondering where to go from there. Before long, I opted to transition to a new sport, new training grounds and a new coach.

The new sport was obviously weightlifting, the closest you could get to bodybuilding.

The new gym was at the Youth Sports Club co-founded and managed by Mahmoud Kayssi. The club had been newly relocated to near my home in Ras el-Nabeh and was renowned for churning out topflight boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters. Among them, for instance, were Zakariya Shehab, Khalil Taha and Mustafa Lahham. The three starred at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Shehab and Taha won silver and bronze in Greco-Roman wrestling while weightlifter Lahham ranked fifth in his lightweight category.

The new coach was none other than Mohammed Ameen Makkouk, an extraordinary old hand at weightlifting.

Training – always one-on-one under Makkouk -- turned out to be more stressful and challenging, at times even frustrating. But the progress, the achievements and the public support and acclamation that came with it were exhilarating. I was not even 19 when I won Lebanon’s 1954 weightlifting championship and set four new national records in Press, Snatch, Clean and Jerk and Total in my weight category. Khodr Traboulsi and Najm el-Ra’i shared the previous all-time highs between them.

My new records galvanized local sports editors. I was their new “rookie of the year.” Oddly, that was when I started pondering my exit from competitive sports altogether. As a new student at the American University (AUB), I felt the pressures of competition from thereon would weigh down my studies. I told myself, “You won the topmost titles in two sports disciplines, set national records in one and learned the graces, skills and virtues associated with good sportsmanship. Time you concentrated on getting a university degree then build a career and earn a living.”

My decision to bring down the curtain on weightlifting preceded or followed:

-- Exhibitions at the Farouk Theater (on Martyrs’ Square), in the Bekaa town of Zahle and at the Youth Sports Club’s grounds in Ras el-Nabeh.

I am center, sailing with the Lebanon delegation to Genoa in 1954
Representing Lebanon
Receiving the medal and kudos from Costy Zurayk and Emile Bustani
-- A memorable 1954 trip behind the Iron Curtain with Lebanon’s delegation to the 12th World University Summer Games in Budapest. We boarded ship in Beirut, sailed to Genoa via Port Said and Athens before traveling by train to the Hungarian capital through Austria. The punishing journey did not impede our sharing in the games’ opening ceremony at the 100,000-seat Népstadion. Setting a new AUB record during a Field Day on campus, which earned me a celebratory medal and kudos from AUB’s Acting President Constantine (“Costy”) Zurayk and Member of Parliament Emile Bustani, member of the AUB Board of Trustees and president of the Alumni Association.

-- My Lebanon captaincy in a friendly matchup with visiting Soviet weightlifters led by Arkady Vorobyov as they trained for the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. Henri Pharaon later entertained both teams at his most remarkable two-story stone palace in Beirut where he amassed art and antiquities.  He was the uncontested patron of Lebanese sports with a passion for horses who helped found independent Lebanon and designed the Lebanese flag.