Like many young men, Aung saw bodybuilding as a means to transform parts of himself he didn’t like. As a child, he says, “I was very skinny. My younger brother was bigger than me. I was shy and didn’t like to go out.” Bodybuilding, immensely popular since Zaw Weik’s Olympic appearance, offered a path to a different life: “When I saw the national bodybuilding champions, I was so impressed. I decided I wanted to be like them.”
Today, Aung is the only member of the seven-man national bodybuilding team that doesn’t train at the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) Sports Centre in downtown Yangon—opting instead to train independently at Real Fitness, a sleek modern gym stocked with new treadmills, flat-screen TVs, and uniformed attendants.
“Some people are jealous of me,” he says. “They ask: ‘Why does this guy stay outside the camp?’ But I wanted to be free with my nutrition, with training, not always eating the same thing every day or living with a bunch of other people.” As he sees it, there was no benefit to training with the team: “The coaches are just like our guards!” he exclaims. “They do not know how to train or prepare; they just follow the ministers.” His own country’s federation officials accuse him of drug use to cover up their own corruption and incompetence, Aung says.
Aung’s larger concerns aside, it’s easy to understand why he chooses to train at Real Fitness. The YCDC Sports Centre resembles less an international athletic facility than a summer camp that has run several years too long. Overgrown jungle presses up against the mold-covered wooden boards of the bodybuilding team bunkhouse. Inside, athletes and coaches sleep in a single room, each man allotted his own bunk.
The gym, a four-walled graveyard of rusted equipment, is hardly better. The air conditioning is either broken or nonexistent, and in the muggy afternoon heat, the weight stacks on the machines stick together, falling to the ground with a tremendous crash when an athlete jiggles them free. Every machine is pointed toward the same wall, on which is painted a simple message in all-capital letters: “BODYBUILDING IS NATION-BUILDING.”
After a few minutes, coach Kyaw Sein Than enters the gym. He walks toward me, delivering a swift kick to a street dog that has wandered inside. When I ask what time the athletes eat dinner, he huddles off to the side with one of the athletes, glancing back toward me suspiciously, and takes out his cellphone. He calls the secretary-general of the bodybuilding federation, then walks back over to me. “6:30 p.m.,” he reports.
Every question I ask about the SEA Games is met first with a call to the ministry or the bodybuilding federation, then with the same response: “Clean, green, and friendship,” which is the official motto of the 27th SEA Games. He checks my notes to see what I’m writing, then asks how long I will be staying.
Kyaw is more eager to talk when I ask about Aung Swe Naing. “He is a good, good, very good man,” he continues, clenching a fist for emphasis. “Since 10 years ago, he is best man in Myanmar.” Other players look up to him, Kyaw says, “and me also. We all try to be like him.” When I ask if Aung needed his permission to train independently, though, he becomes agitated. “No, no, no. He want to train freely, eat free, so he can’t stay in camp,” Kyaw replies, throwing his hands up in exasperation.
Hla Myint Swe, the president of the Myanmar Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Federation, keeps a sparsely decorated, heavily air-conditioned office just above Real Fitness. Bespectacled, with a thinning head of black hair, he has big, ruddy cheeks that rise when he laughs.
Hla thinks of himself as an artist, and he produces his official bodybuilding business card only reluctantly, after giving me his artist’s business card first. It is not simply that he prefers art to bodybuilding. In fact, he doesn’t like bodybuilding at all; like so many officials in Burma, he fell into the position because he was a senior army officer.
Hla is blunt about the depressing reality of national athletics in Burma. In contrast to the paltry means at his disposal, Hla says, the president of the Thai Bodybuilding Federation owns a string of high-end hotels. In December 2012, he recalls with a chuckle, he was invited to attend a dinner that the Thai official hosted in his own lavish hotel.
Even so, he is cautiously optimistic about Burma’s chances at the games. “We will get more gold medals than other countries,” he says—because the host country always wins. This is especially true in bodybuilding: “Nobody knows why you choose first prize—it depends on judges.” Hla says he has been dutifully wooing the judges in the run up to the games.
When I ask about Aung Swe Naing, Hla’s mood turns suddenly sour. “He tried to use drugs,” Hla blurts.
Hla claims that Aung is training outside the team compound because he was removed for using banned substances and out of fear that he would persuade other team members to do the same. “He has a better brain than other competitors. The others are uneducated; they listen to what Aung Swe Naing says. I say to him, ‘Don’t come to my camp.’ ” If Aung fails a single drug test before the games, Hla says, he will be off the team.
“If we can’t get any gold without drugs, OK,” Hla says. “Respect is most important.” He leans back in his chair and concludes, darkly, “Everybody knows he is using but he thinks they don’t. I know he will use.”
Downstairs at Real Fitness, Aung is arriving for his afternoon workout. I catch him just before he enters the locker room. He smiles and begins posing and flexing as if in competition, the smile never fading. “Remember,” he says, “be wise, be strong mentally.” He sticks out his tongue playfully, then continues, “I try hard to do different than all bodybuilders, than everyone else in Burma. That is why I succeed.”