“I was crying, just crying, and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] saw me, and said I’m a soft-hearted man, I shouldn’t cry being a big strong man.”
But anyone who saw a photograph of Pakistani bodybuilder Atif Anwar with his arms raised, biceps bulging, receiving a gold medal from Schwarzenegger while weeping would know how much it meant to him.
Anwar worked two jobs at a time in Karachi, while putting in countless hours at the gym training as a body builder all for one dream only: to meet his hero Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Three years later, the Pakistani bodybuilder achieved his dream, when he became the winner of the Arnold Classic body building competition held in Australia. The competition, as you might have guessed, is named after none other than Hollywood legend and seven times Mr Olympia, Schwarzenegger.
“The last three years have been crazy, where I’ve worked two jobs at a time and still training as a bodybuilder putting hours into gym,” the 34-year-old told The Express Tribune.
“It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of struggle and it all paid off. Seeing my hero Arnold giving me the prize, watching me was all that I could ask for. It’s like my mind just went blank. I just kissed his hand and he seemed genuinely happy.”
Firmly believing all his hard work conspired for that one moment, Anwar added, “It was my dream to meet my hero; he’s been my inspiration all my life. I just remember being very confused, awestruck, but Arnold is a very humble, very gentle and down-to-earth human being. I’m inspired and humbled myself.”
The soft-spoken athlete gives out parking tickets to people and serves for City Council during the day and has set his eyes on becoming Mr Olympia in the next two years.
Lack of support from Pakistan
A disappointed Anwar said that despite all his efforts, officials in Pakistan hesitated to support him.
He recalled how last year, he wanted to go for a Pro Card from International Federation of Body Building, which was awarded to a selected few, depending on their physique and form. However, he needed the No-Objection Certificate from Pakistan Body Building officials, but they did not co-operate.
“Now I’ve won the title, and they claim that I’m one of their boys, but last year when I needed them to give me clearance to apply for Pro Card in Australia, they made me beg, I used to call them for two hours each day. But now I have no regrets or complains, I’ve proved myself and Allah helps those who work hard,” Anwar said.
He said that compared to Pakistanis, his Australian friends have been more cooperative and encouraging. He said that even his bosses at the City Council celebrated his win and gave him time to train for the event and take care of his diet.
“Australians are very supportive people, even at my work-place they let me take time for lunch and training; they understand,” he said.
However, he claimed Pakistanis get easily charmed with superficial things and only like to associate themselves with celebrities.
“It is one of the greatest weaknesses of our society; we support winners in sports and in life, or those who already have all the resources, who can do without all the favours. However, the losers, the ones who are brave enough to pursue their passion regardless of their circumstances or are struggling, go unnoticed, or are told to quit the sport altogether. I know this because people told me to quit as well.”
Afshan, Atif’s wife and his source of support, says that it is not fair that everyone turned their attention to Anwar once he won the title, while a year ago no one would even like his pictures on Facebook.
“It’s unfair. If people can’t support athletes, they shouldn’t demotivate them either. Now he’s earned this title, and everyone is talking about it, but where were these people when Atif really needed that pat on the back and few words of encouragement, and support. Till last year, when he would put his pictures on Facebook, no one would even like them,” said Afshan.
Anwar said his dream of becoming a bodybuilder began when he was 19 years old. He did his schooling at Sindh Madressatul Islam and went on to complete his intermediate in commerce and decided to become a bodybuilder after that.
The body-builder said he was interested in sports and was training for martial arts during his teenage years till he watched Schwarzenegger’s movies. That is when he suddenly yearned to have a physique like the former Mr Olympia.
“I was into martial arts and weighed 72-kg, I was athletic,” said Anwar. “But then I watched Arnold’s movies.”
“I still remember that I went to Rainbow Centre to buy a copy of Pumping Iron and watched it repeatedly. I knew I wanted to be a body builder at that moment,” Anwar added.
However, he said his father was not pleased with his decision.
“He would ask me what I would do for a living and get upset. He thought I would do odd jobs and clean cars and said that I was making a mistake leaving my studies.”
Anwar recalled that his father’s remarks would be disheartening, but he didn’t give up on his dream.
He became Mr Sindh for the first time in 2002, then Mr Pakistan in 2003 and went on to take the same title in 2006, while he also competed at Mr Universe in the US, where he finished fourth. Later on, Anwar also won titles at South Asian Championships.
“Body building is all about motivating yourself and will power; it’s like you live and die every day, working out, taking proper diet, educating yourself about your body,” said Anwar.
“I began from Karachi, trained at different places, even went to the US for a while, came back, got married to the most amazing woman, who supported me through thick and thin and then shifted to Australia,” he said.
In Australia, he took courses in physical education and training and received a degree too. “It’s been two and a half years that I’ve been struggling to get here.”
A piercing gap
Claiming that the success at Arnold Classic has only made him more grateful, Anwar said, “My father was against my decision, but I spoke to him today, and he said that his former colleagues and friends at work threw him a dinner and asked him to get them connected to me.”
“He is now proud of me. In just a couple of days I’ve got more than 7,000 friends requests on Facebook too, but I know all of this will go away, so, I’m not forgetting my values.”
Anwar said he feels the absence of his mother, who passed away in an accident when Anwar was just four years old.
“It’s been 30 years,” said Anwar. “She was dropping me to school, when that accident took place. I still feel it. I wish she could see this achievement too.”
However, he is grateful to his wife for her constant support.
“Anwar looks very tough but he is the best husband and the most caring person I know,” said Afshan.
“He might not be that educated but he is a very smart and sensible man. His character is such,” she said.
The couple got married in 2001, had a son a year later and is now building a life in Darwin.
Dedicating medals to APS victims
Further, Anwar said that he wants to dedicate his medals to the Army Public School victims.
Anwar, who is also a parent, said that he would want all of his medals and any accolade he may win in the future to be dedicated to the children in Peshawar after the deadly attack on the school on December 16 that killed more than 140 people, including 132 children.
“My medals are dedicated to the children and the Peshawar victims,” Anwar said.
“It was a horrifying attack. Even here, as I was watching it on the television, I was shaken, disturbed and those images of blood in the classroom and on the kid’s shoes and bags still haunt me.”
Aspiring bodybuilders in Pakistan
According to Anwar, who is also training a few clients besides preparing himself for Mr Olympia, athletes in Australia are more health conscious and serious about bodybuilding compared to their counterparts in Pakistan.
He said that body building can only be done if the person is working out for himself instead of others.
“In Karachi, the trend is to work on the upper body, have biceps and impress girls,” said Anwar. “That is a very bad reason to even begin with. Here people do it for themselves.”