In eastern Iraq, a small town builds weightlifting champions
BARDA, Iraq - While some towns in Iraq are known for producing oil or textiles, Badra boasts its own special conveyer belt — churning out weightlifting champions.
In cafes along the main road dissecting the small town, 200km east of Baghdad and just 10km from the border with Iran, chatter rarely veers far from the successes of local lifters.
In the old days, “men measured their performance by lifting cast iron, often spare parts of cars,” said Khudeir Basha, who grew up nearby and became coach of the national weightlifting team. “In 1974, the youth of Badra decided to take part in the Iraqi championships,” he recalled, referring to himself and his friends.
The hopefuls headed to Qadisiyyah province, where they swept “all the prizes,” astonishing fellow competitors who had never heard of Badra.
Since then, he said, weightlifting has been synonymous with the town of 15,000.
A weightlifting training centre, set up in 1993 in a Badra high school, is still in operation. The spartan hall echoes with shouts of encouragement by Basha, who sets an example by keeping himself in peak condition.
Lifters here are acutely aware that they are upholding a tradition and a new generation wants to “continue what Badra began in the weightlifting field,” the thick-set athlete said.
“It’s up to us and the coaches to keep going so Badra remains a factory for champion weightlifters,” said Salwan Jassim Abbood, who will represent Iraq at the Asian Games in Indonesia this summer.
Abbood, who is in the 105-kilogramme category, returned from the Asian weightlifting championships in Turkmenistan last year with a silver medal. In 2016, the 26-year-old took part in the Olympic Games in Brazil. Ten years previously, his brother Mohammad won silver at a contest in Qatar.
With seemingly little effort, Abbood lifts a barbell from the floor to far above his head, the bar ends sagging slightly due to heavy discs on each end.
Another medal winner, 28-year-old Ahmed Faruq, said he was “proud to have made this small town Iraq’s capital of weightlifting,” noted for its victories in Asian and Arab competitions.
“Big names have been here and we need to protect that identity,” he said.
Despite the successes, the gym is in poor shape. Paint peels from the pale green walls, a solitary fan recycles warm air and the upholstery on the leg press has worn away, disgorging yellow foam as if from a putrid wound.
Iraq’s sports authorities are losing interest in Badra and the weightlifting club, coach Basha lamented. The small management team has resorted to drumming up its own income to keep things ticking over.
“Every year, the club generates 30 million dinars ($25,000) by renting out shops it bought,” says Mohammad Kazem, a 55-year-old former athlete, now manager of the weightlifting club.
While that isn’t a lot, Kazem said he committed to training the next generation of lifters for free.
He and fellow talent scouts regularly tour schools and sports clubs to recruit “nursery champions” and ensure “there are people… to protect (Badra’s) reputation and keep the story going.”
In the club, athletes regularly execute lifts exceeding their own weight.
The success of Abbood, Faruq and others “is proof that Badra is the number one weightlifting town (in Iraq) and also the most attached to the sport,” said Kazem.
With schoolchildren among the disciplined lifters filling the gym, it seems the production line will keep grinding on, urged on by posters of past winners peering down from the peeling walls.