In the small Iraqi town of Badra not too far from the Iranian border, chatter rarely veers far from successes of local lifters as new generation fight to uphold tradition. The town in Diwaniya Province, has historically produced weightlifters who have competed in championships.
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, 10 kilometres (six miles) 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,” the bespectacled coach recalled, referring to himself and his friends.
The hopefuls headed south to Diwaniya province, where they swept up “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, some 200 km east of Baghdad.
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.
Heavy lifter Salwan Jassim Abbood, who is in the 105 kilogramme category, returned from the Asian weightlifting championships in Turkmenistan last year with a silver medal.
The new generation wants to “continue what Badra has launched in the weightlifting field”, the thick-set athlete said.
With seemingly little effort, Abbood propelled a barbell from the floor to far above his head, the bar ends sagging slightly under heavy discs.
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.
“It’s up to us and the coaches to keep going so Badra remains a factory for champion weightlifters,” said Abbood, who will represent Iraq at the Asian Games in Indonesia this summer.
– ‘Capital of weightlifting’ –
Lifters here are acutely aware that they are upholding a tradition.
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.
But despite those successes, the gym is in poor shape.
Paint peeled from the pale green walls, a solitary fan recycled warm air and the upholstery on the leg press had 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, just over 20,000 euros) by renting out shops it bought,” says Mohammad Kazem, a 55-year-old former athlete, now manager of the weightlifting club.
And 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 in the town and beyond, 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.