Flexing his sculpted muscles in one of the seven mandatory poses for bodybuilding competition, Huth Sophoas wasn’t the least bit modest: “Women say they like me,” the 23-year-old bodybuilding competitor said. “Men say they want to be like me.”
Pinups of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other famous bodies hang as inspiration around the Black & White Fitness Center—a gym of chain-link fence walls and corrugated metal roof—where Huth Sophoas dreams of nothing less than fame.
“I was very small,” he recounted of his life before weight training on Wednesday. “Many people just want a nicer body, but not to be a bodybuilder like me,” he said, taking a break from tendon-busting repetitions with hefty dumbbells.
Huth Sophoas and gym owner and sometime competitor Rhoue Sao, aka “Rama,” are some of the Cambodian muscle men in training for the Second Cambodian National Bodybuilding Competition that will be held Sept 4.
“In 1995, I went to Singapore to compete in the first Southeast Asian Bodybuilding Championship,” the 32-year-old Rama said. “From each country there were 12 or 15 competitors, but I was the only [Cambodian].”
Rama won his weight class in the 1999 Cambodian national competition, and there hasn’t been one since. Nonetheless, he said interest in bodybuilding has exploded in Cambodia in the intervening years, and competition will be fierce at next month’s national competition.
Rama’s club, which costs 500 riel ($0.13) per session, includes motorcycle taxi drivers, a bodyguard and a former Khmer Rouge soldier who now works as a security guard at a school.
At the King Kong Fitness Center, owner Hy Dynarin, who plans to compete next month, said the 14 competitors who will enter from his gym come from a diverse clientele.
Big muscles are medicine for the body, said 24-year-old Sam Limsong, a receptionist at the Phnom Penh Hotel, next door to the King Kong gym, who plans to enter the competition. “The only good medicine is going to the gym. Medicine can help our health one or two times, but this can help our health until we die.”
US attorney and bodybuilding enthusiast David Michael, who is organizing the competition, said the bodybuilders will be divided into four weight classes.
Michael said 42 entrants are expected to show up for a closed pre-judging this Sunday, when they will be reduced down to a lean 20 to 24 bodybuilders for the Sept 4 competition at the Chenla Theater.
On that night, competitors in each weight class will strike seven mandatory poses for the audience and judges, then return for 60-second individual freestyle performances set to music.
Judges will pick the bronze, silver and gold medal winners in each class. The four gold-medal winners will be invited to compete in the 2005 SEA Games in Manila this November, Michael said.
“It’s a very solitary activity,” he said of the sport. “But here’s a chance to share it with the world. It’s the only opportunity to get social recognition of something you’ve worked so hard at personally.”
And Cambodian bodybuilders must work hard, especially because most do not have access to the high-tech equipment and specialty foods that have become par for the course internationally.
“These gyms are very basic in many ways, except the ones in the hotels, and they don’t really cater to Cambodians,” Michael said.
Most local bodybuilders use free weights and basic machines, and eat natural high-protein foods such as chicken and egg whites. Richard Chin, manager of the InterContinental Hotel’s Clark Hatch Fitness Center, who has his eyes set on a gold medal next month, said his specialty foods, drinks and supplements cost more than $1,000 per month.
“Ninety-nine percent of Khmers would think that’s a waste of money,” Chin said, explaining that his precompetition diet forbids potassium, sodium and carbohydrates.
“I feel depleted,” said Chin, who devotes his mornings to bodybuilding and late afternoons to cardiovascular exercise and practicing his posing and routine at the luxurious Clark Hatch.
Chin’s coach, American Carl “Rocco” Zuccarello, a former US bodybuilding competitor and trainer at the world-famous Gold’s Gym, said that Cambodian bodybuilders have good, lean muscle and physiques, but that the most common weaknesses were in the size of their legs, possibly due to a lack of proper training equipment.
But size doesn’t matter as much anymore, Zuccarello said, adding that judges now look for good condition, balanced muscle mass and physical aesthetics. “It’s not about the biggest,” he said. “This is not the 70s anymore.”