YANGON – Sporting just a navy blue thong and several layers of tanning oil, Zarli Tin says he dreams of becoming Myanmar’s greatest bodybuilder as the discipline undergoes a revival after years in the doldrums.
One of a new generation of muscle men, he hopes to be among the beneficiaries of a cash injection for the sport, which floundered like all others during the wasteful and corrupt junta era.
“I’m not great yet, I’m not very famous . . . but I’m trying, I’m on the way,” says the jovial 33-year-old, flashing a grin as he flexes his grapefruit-size biceps by way of credentials.
Myanmar’s reformist government has loosened the purse strings for sport as it hunts success at the Southeast Asian Games regional event which it will host in December, billed as the country’s “coming out” party.
It has targeted several medals at bodybuilding and hopes to extend the nation’s impressive record in the event.
Home to a demure culture and relatively diminutive people, Myanmar has an unexpected lineage in the ultimate of exhibitionist sports — which was popularized through the 1970s by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Myanmar claimed two silvers at the 2001 World Bodybuilding Championship — held on home soil — a bronze at the Asian Games the following year and has taken a clutch of medals whenever the sport is contested at the SEA Games.
But bodybuilders say those achievements mask a deep malaise, with woeful funding over the final years of the avaricious junta leaving them without decent gyms, proper coaching or nutrition — a huge cost in an impoverished country.
At the final SEA Games selection contest in Yangon, 32-year-old truck driver Tint Lwin says he struggles to afford the high-protein diet and supplements required to power him through a brutal four- to six-hour daily training regime.
“The money I get from work isn’t even enough for a single bottle of the vitamins I need to train,” he says as an assistant applies a final coat of the stinking copper-colored tanning oil to his back with a paint roller.
“But the sport will get bigger . . . the officials are helping us get better. It will come.”
Myanmar’s sporting prowess was eviscerated by the former regime, with a lack of investment in facilities and planning choking the pipeline of talent in all disciplines.
Soccer fell hardest, with the national team slumping from one of Asia’s best in the mid-1960s and the 1970s, to claiming just a single 1993 SEA Games final spot, and a semifinal in the Asean Football Championship of 2004.
For the nation’s bodybuilders the demise has been less precipitous, but still keenly felt.
Once they toured schools and colleges drawing adulation with their combination of muscle, machismo and showmanship.
But the visits waned as student activities of all kinds came under intense scrutiny from the former junta after a failed college-led uprising led in 1988, which was brutally crushed by the army.
Strongmen have flexed their way back into popularity over the last few years, with improved access to U.S. bodybuilding websites boosting its popularity just as the reform-minded government throws its weight behind the SEA Games.
While several contestants quietly share suspicions that some of their rivals take steroids, the high cost of the drugs and lack of ready availability makes doping harder in Myanmar than in Western countries where bodybuilding draws its biggest fanbase.
“The top bodybuilders are very famous here,” says 19-year-old student Oak Tharkyaw who is among the raucous 150-strong audience. “It’s a healthy sport, it builds your confidence and strength. It feels great . . . the only bad thing is Myanmar girls prefer the small, skinny Korean pop star look.”
He breaks off to applaud as local boy Zarli and the five other contestants in the 90-kg category waddle up to the spot-lit stage, their giant arms held crablike away from their torsos.
To cries of “squeeze” from the crowd, they strain through seven poses accentuating the main muscle areas — biceps, triceps, thighs, back and abdomen.
The resulting mass of oily muscle, veins and sinew is both impressive and a touch grotesque, while the skimpy “posing suits” elicit titters from the female fans and bawdy jeers from a group of inebriated older men.
Judges give marks for symmetry and proportion as well as the definition and size of the muscle, according to Ne Lin, a former champion bodybuilder scoring the contestants.
“Our athletes always tried hard but we struggled for money . . . all sports suffered. But the bodybuilding federation is now supporting us,” he says, adding the target is two golds out of the five available at the SEA Games.
Zarli finished third in his category — not enough to take a spot at the games’ training camp but impressive given his struggle to afford the expensive diet needed in the run-in to a competition.
For all the rivalry, Zarli says the bodybuilders are “like brothers”, united by punishing training and an all-consuming passion. “We may be poor,” he adds. “But we love this sport.”