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YANGON, Burma—Atop the Myanmar Ministry of Sports website, alongside a slideshow featuring golden cartoon owls awkwardly Photoshopped onto blurry athletic fields, is a countdown ticker. It’s marking the minutes until the opening of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, an event you have probably never heard of. The SEA Games, held biennially among the 11 nations of Southeast Asia, are the region’s premier sporting contest. This year, for the first time since 1969, Burma is the host.
This year’s games, which begin Wednesday, have been hailed as Burma’s “coming out party,” and there is plenty to celebrate. After half a century of military rule marked by brutal repression, mass poverty, and near-complete isolation from the outside world, the last two years have brought sudden and remarkable change: free and fair elections, the release of political prisoners, and the near-total elimination of bruising international sanctions. While Burma (also known as Myanmar) still has many problems, including ongoing ethnic conflict in the country’s north, the transformation has been extraordinary—both in its speed and its scope.
For Burma, the SEA Games are not only a chance to prove that the country’s rapid reform and development are real; they are also an opportunity to recapture the respect the nation lost during its decades as an international pariah. In the arenas and stadiums that will house the tournament, Burma aims to showcase its newfound strength and ambition.
Fittingly, the country’s best chance to flex its muscle will be in bodybuilding, a national obsession and the country’s strongest event. If the SEA Games are to prove a triumph for Burma, it will be on the shoulders of the country’s bodybuilding team, and especially its brash, boyish bodybuilding champion, Aung Swe Naing. That is, if he can avoid getting kicked off the team first.
“I was very naughty,” Aung Swe Naing giggles, inspecting his short, spiked black hair in the locker room mirror. He flashes me a playful smile and sticks out his tongue. “I was drunk last night.”
When Aung is happy—which is nearly always—a mischievous grin spreads across his square face. At 5 feet 9 inches and 200 pounds, he is built like an ox, with the broad shoulders and muscled arms you would expect of a champion bodybuilder. But it is his smile that you notice most: Warm and unassuming, it creates the illusion that he is much younger than his 37 years.
In a country almost devoid of public figures—the ruling junta was reluctant to let any individual gain too much notoriety—Aung’s minor celebrity is unusually amplified. He is a three-time Mr. Myanmar, five-time Mr. Crusher (a nationwide fitness award), and a frequent medalist at regional bodybuilding competitions. He is also the odds-on favorite to take home gold at the SEA Games.
Despite his success, Aung’s attitude hasn’t endeared him to some officials. More seriously, rumors of illegal drug use have hounded him for years. His response to these allegations is unwavering. “No. Never,” he says. “Natural bodybuilding, to grow and learn, this is what I want.” He shakes his head as if to dismiss the issue entirely.
“What do you hope to accomplish as a bodybuilder?” I ask. Leaning forward suddenly, he swoops in close, eyes locked intently on mine. “I want a beautiful mind,” he whispers, slowly and deliberately, tapping a finger to his head. “And I want to share it with my country.”
Burma’s fascination with bodybuilding is as old as the country itself. In 1936, a 25-year-old Burmese weightlifter named Zaw Weik traveled to Berlin to compete in the XI Olympic Games. He was a symbol of Burmese strength, and despite his 15th place finish, his trip to the Olympics was hailed as a national triumph: a Burmese man competing alongside the world’s best.
But Zaw Weik’s trip to the Olympics was also a source of national shame—Burma, a minor jewel in the British colonial crown, was thought too unimportant to have its own Olympic team, so Zaw Weik was forced to compete for Team India. The lost glory of Burmese athletics, with Zaw Weik as its most potent symbol, is a frequent refrain in Burma and an elegy tinged with strong notes of nationalism.
“Long, long ago,” one government official tells me, “our teams were the best in Asia.” But then, he adds delicately, there was a “general crisis. Nobody can give time for sport because they are too busy finding food. They can’t play games.”
Under the military government, many Burmese sports teams simply didn’t compete internationally for decades, and those that did were a laughingstock, lacking the training, knowledge, and support necessary to be anything more than a speed bump for other national teams. To this day, Burma has never medaled in the Summer Olympics.
Despite the drought, hopes remain high for this year’s event. The Myanmar government understands the importance of soft power these days, and to maximize the PR boost of the SEA games, two things need to happen: The games must run smoothly, and Burma must dominate the medal count.
Host countries are allowed some discretion over the events, and Burma has openly tilted the playing field in its favor by omitting popular sports like tennis and water polo in favor of a motley assortment of traditional Burmese sports, such as vovinam (a local martial art) and sepak takraw (foot volleyball). Regional rivals have cried foul, but Myanmar is unrepentant. “We have chosen the sports in which Myanmar can get a lot of gold medals,” said U Khin Maung Lwin, the joint general secretary of Myanmar’s Olympic Committee.
The government has high expectations. At the 2011 SEA Games, Burma came in eighth out of 11 countries. Nonetheless, the Sports Ministry’s very public goal is to capture 100 of the 460 gold medals up for grabs at the games. In bodybuilding, which has five events, the ministry expects at least three gold medals.
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