Tag Archives: Sports

Wheelchair Bodybuilders Muscle Their Way to the Top

When he was 16, Nick Scott was in a near-fatal car accident. He was left paralyzed from the waist down. Nonetheless, Scott, now 30, is also known in certain circles—namely, the wheelchair bodybuilding world, a universe in which his is perhaps the most recognizable face—as “The Beast.” The Beast isn’t sure of his bench press limit, only because he hasn’t yet stopped reaching for more weight. The metaphor’s an obvious one, but true: ”If you want something bad enough, nothings gonna stop you from not getting it,” he has said.

And The Beast wants to spread the word: he was instrumental in the creation of the first-ever competition for certified International Federation of BodyBuilders (IFBB) Pro Wheelchair Bodybuilders, which was held last fall. The 2012 IFBB Pro Wheelchair championships took place Oct. 13 in Houston, an event open only to Scott and the dozen other men who have qualified as pros. Harold Kelley was named the winner in 2011 and 2012.

Photographer Lauren Fleishman has been documenting the sport for over a year, including that first competition. She first heard about wheelchair bodybuilding via a phone call from her cousin, who works in a hotel where a bodybuilding event took place. “I got so excited that I hung up the phone and began researching the sport,” she says.

Fleishman says that when she first began exploring the topic, she noticed that almost all of the photographs of bodybuilders, at least the ones that she could find, portrayed the participants in an almost grotesque manner. She wanted to avoid that look. “In showing a different side to it, it’s a way of connecting people, a way of changing their perceptions about the sport.”

Wheelchair bodybuilding competitions date back about 15 years, and both amateurs and professionals compete in worldwide events throughout the year. After following the participants for months, Fleishman says that, besides the normal suspense that comes with any competitive event, there’s another layer to it. “Seeing what being on stage does for them, they really, really shine,” she says. “You have a whole range of reasons why they compete, but the dedication and perseverance is really inspiring.” And it’s not just on stage: last May, in a Wal-mart in Texas, Fleishman accompanied Scott—the de facto spokesman for the sport—when he went to purchase batteries for his wheelchair, which is rigged to light up when he performs. Outside the store, a teenage boy, also in a wheelchair, approached Scott to say that he hoped one day to be like him. “You can obviously see that Nick has muscles,” says Fleishman. “The kid was impressed. It was a really nice moment to see that.”

But there has been one drawback to immersion in the wheelchair bodybuilding community during her year of photographing the project—and, as the work continues, it may only get worse. “It’s really hard,” Fleishman says, “because you want them all to win.”

Lauren Fleishman is an award-winning photographer based in New York City and Paris. See more of her work here and or on LightBox here.

Pictures of the Week: September 21 – 28

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From the NFL touchdown controversy in the U.S. News submission . and Israelis observing Yom Kippur to China’s first aircraft carrier and surfing with dolphins in Australia, TIME presents the best images of the week.

A Visionary Journey

Imagine for a moment hurtling down a roadway as fast as your legs could carry you—all the while blindfolded. Sound scary? Henry Wanyoike does it every day, along the dirt roads around his Kenyan village and on the speedy tracks of Olympic stadiums. Wanyoike, 38, has won three gold medals in three Paralympics—his first in the 5000m at Sydney in 2000—setting two world records for a blind runner in the process. This year in London, he is aiming to medal in his first Paralympic marathon.

The fact that Wanyoike runs at such intense speeds while totally blind is truly remarkable, a testament to both his raw athletic talent and iron guts. I know that from personal experience. I, too, am losing my sight, due to a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. There is no treatment or cure, no way of slowing the descent into blindness. Today, I still see much better than Wanyoike, but I can barely find my way at night or down a crowded street. As I visited Wanyoike in his village outside of the town of Kikuyu, I joined him for a stretch of a morning run. The weather was terrible. A cold rain fell on the unpaved roads, turning them into cauldrons of mud. My sight doesn’t allow me to spot potholes or other potential ankle-twisters, and the raindrops splattering my eyeglasses made that task even more difficult. I struggled to keep my footing. Yet Wanyoike ran beside me, unfazed and sure-footed. He can’t run alone, of course. He is joined by a guide, Joseph Kibunja, who acts as his eyes.

Wanyoike didn’t always have such confidence. As a young man, he seemed headed for a promising career as part of Kenya’s famed running teams, until disaster struck in May 1995. At only 20 years old, Wanyoike went suddenly blind, due to a stroke. Unable to care for himself, let alone run, he became despondent, even suicidal. “I was thinking that was the end of me,” he says. “My dream would never come true.”

Yet it did. After several years, with the help of encouraging teachers and doctors, Wanyoike learned to run again with the aid of a guide. Now he participates in races from Hong Kong to Hamburg, an inspiration not only to disabled people in Kenya, but also to the poor children of his home region of Kikuyu as well. Wanyoike still lives near to where he was born, humbly in little more than an upgraded shack. Though he wishes he could see his wife and children at least once, Wanyoike doesn’t look backwards, to the life he had when he was sighted. “For 17 years, since I lost my sight, I think I have done so many (more) things than what I did for 21 years before,” Wanyoike says. “The most important thing is to accept yourself.”

I’d like to say I found Wanyoike and his life story inspiring, especially since I am facing a similar fate. He is an inspiration, of course, to anyone dealing with disability or adversity. But what struck me most is how differently Wanyoike and I have approached our condition. Wanyoike has come to accept what has happened to him, and has gained strength from that acceptance. I, however, strive to overcome my failing sight by stubbornly refusing to accept the problem exists. My visit with Wanyoike made me wonder if his way is better.

Read more about Henry Wanyoike at TIME.com.

Dominic Nahr, a TIME contract photographer, is represented by Magnum.

Michael Schuman writes about Asia and global economic issues as a correspondent for TIME in Beijing.

The Gold Standard: James Nachtwey Photographs China’s Female Weight Lifters

When Chinese scouts set out to recruit athletes for their national women’s weight-lifting team in the late 1990s, they had specific criteria in mind. Calculated research had given them the perfect profile: stoic, quick, powerful and, of course, strong. By 2000, China had one of the most powerful teams in the world, and today, China’s female weight lifters are expected to dominate their competition in London.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog.)

In May, TIME sent contract photographer James Nachtwey to Beijing to photograph the national women’s weight-lifting team as it prepared for London. The photographs document the making of elite athletes in a country that has quickly become an Olympic powerhouse, earning the most gold medals of any nation in 2008’s Beijing Games.

Nachtwey’s images put faces to China’s supercharged athletic program. Photographed from behind, the arms, legs and shoulders of one team member look as solid as the massive weights she holds, with seemingly little effort, in her calloused hands. In another, Wang Mingjuan, a tiny woman at just 48 kg (106 lb.), lifts a burden that looks as if it would easily stump amateur weight lifters twice her size.

To explain China’s success in the sport, the national team’s coach Xu Jingfa offers a simple explanation: “We do everything together, and we work harder than everyone else.”

That hard work includes six-day weeks of all-day training. The 30 members of the national team wake together at 6:30 a.m. and begin a marathon schedule of exercise, physical therapy and classes that range from weight-lifting techniques to “ideological education.” Weight lifting has consumed their lives since they began training at age 10 or 11. In London, it will become clear just how much this dedication will pay off for China’s strongest women.

Read more about China’s Olympic athletes at TIME.com.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer who has covered Sept. 11 and the 2011 Japanese tsunami, among other topics, for the magazine. He was awarded the 2012 Dresden Peace Prize.

A Young Olympian: Diver Carolina Mendoza’s Path to London

Although she is one of the youngest athletes set to compete in this summer’s Olympic games, 15-year-old Carolina Mendoza displays a maturity beyond her years through her training. In early June, TIME commissioned photographer Tomas Munita to photograph Mendoza as she prepared to represent Mexico in the 10-m platform dive in London—one of the only remaining Olympic sports permitting teenage competitors as young as 14.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

Munita, who photographed Mendoza at the National High-Performance Center (CNAR) in Mexico City, was drawn to his subject’s balanced approach to her training. At an age where many kids face distractions from friends, family and school, Mendoza has found a rare balance in the frenzy of her life.

“Her happiness and professionalism completely explains her success,” he said. “She is not just tough practicing over and over again, but she also loves what she does as a challenge and a game—not just as pure competition.”

Mendoza seems perfectly suited for the rigors of the Olympics. Learning to walk at 9 months old and swimming by age 2, she was encouraged athletically by her parents: her mother, a Mexican national track-and-field champion and her father, an Olympic cyclist competing at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

At age 11, Mendoza discovered that her experience in both swimming and gymnastics found harmony in diving. And now, four years later, she is packing for the London Games.

Munita watched in awe as Mendoza dove again and again during practice.  “She works every detail systematically and patiently. In between each dive, she finds time to joke and laugh loudly with her partners,” he said. “Then, suddenly, she’s running up the ladders again.”

Read more about Carolina Mendoza on TIME.com.

Tomas Munita is a freelance photographer based in Santiago, Chile. He previously photographed Church and State: The Role of Religion in Cuba for TIME.


The Wrestlers of Chechnya: Photographs by Yuri Kozyrev

In 1994, when Russia invaded the breakaway region of Chechnya, Yuri Kozyrev, then a freelance photographer, captured some of the most iconic images of the ensuing war. It was too dangerous at the time to live in the Chechen capital of Grozny, which faced heavy Russian bombardment. So he and a group of other reporters (including Marie Colvin, who was killed this year while covering the siege of the Syrian city of Homs) took up residence at a kindergarten called Solnyshka (Sunshine), in the nearby town of Khasavyurt. Lying on the border between Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, this town of 130,000 suffered relatively little damage during the war, so journalists, as well as some of the Chechen rebels, used it as a place to rest and resupply before heading back into the war zone.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

In June, Kozyrev returned to Khasavyurt to photograph how the town—and its conflict—have evolved. Although heavy fighting ended with the Russian conquest of Chechnya in 2000, the war left behind an Islamist insurgency that Russia still struggles to quell. On an almost daily basis, rebels inspired by a radical sect of Sunni Islam called Salafism continue to clash with security forces in the region, costing hundreds of lives every year. In Khasavyurt, the Russian effort to counter their influence still scars the unpaved streets. In most neighborhoods, gutted homes mark the sites of “special operations,”the commando raids that use heavy artillery to flush out suspected insurgents. But the town has also been shaped by the central element of Russian soft power in the region: the development of wrestling schools. Much like soccer in the favelas of Sao Paolo and basketball in Harlem, wrestling in Khasavyurt is meant to serve as an inoculation against violence, or at least a distraction from it, by offering the local boys an outlet for their frustrations that does not involve ”going to the woods,” the Russian slang for joining the insurgency.

Every year, Moscow pumps roughly a million dollars into Khasavyurt’s five wrestling academies, which have produced an impressive crop of champions. In the past four Olympic cycles, freestyle wrestlers from Khasavyurt have brought home a total of eight gold medals, along with at least 12 world championship titles and countless trophies in national and European tournaments. At the Olympic Games in London, at least two wrestlers from Khasavyurt will compete to affirm the town’s nickname—The Foundry of Champions—which is scrawled on green signs near the central bazaar, showing the legendary Buvaysar Saytiev in the middle of a grapple.

During his visit in June, Kozyrev’s photography focused on Saytiev and his younger brother Adam, who have won four Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling between them. For more than a decade, the Saytiev brothers, who are ethnic Chechens, have served as somewhat reluctant poster boys for the notion of pacification through sport. Their wrestling schools have inspired thousands of young men from Khasavyurt to channel their strength into wrestling rather than rebellion, and Kozyrev spent much of his time photographing them train for the London Olympics. But away from the gyms, members of the Khasavyurt wrestling community revealed that the idea of sport as an antidote to extremism is not quite working out as planned. Some of the town’s leading athletes have started “going to the woods” in recent years, and an alarming number of them have been killed as insurgents during shootouts with police. No longer a haven from conflict, the wrestling schools of Khasavyurt, whose students are often as young as 8, have become recruiting ground for Islamists. As Kozyrev concluded after his visit: “This is a town that remains at war.”

Read more about the Chechen wrestlers of Khasavyurt on TIME.com

Simon Shuster is TIME’s Moscow reporter.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

Best Magazine Assignment Ever: Neil Leifer’s 1984 Olympic Odyssey Around the World

In honor of this year’s London Games, LightBox has retrieved one of TIME’s most-prized portfolios: Neil Leifer’s timeless portraits of athletes created during a year-long project for which the photographer traveled to 13 different countries to create a groundbreaking collection of images that would appear in TIME’s preview of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

It’s hard for modern viewers, accustomed as we are to photo-shopped composite images, to appreciate the effort it took to create the photographs in this essay. Just the logistics of transporting the athletes from their training areas to the picture postcard locations, whether it was the Great Wall of China or the plains of Africa was a challenge. “I proposed photographing athletes around the world in front of the picture postcard image of their nation—an Egyptian at the Pyramids, a Russian at Red Square, Indian athletes at the Taj Mahal,” Leifer said. “[Then-managing editor] Ray Cave just looked at me like I was crazy. He said, ‘do you know how much that’s going to cost me?’”

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

But a few days later, Cave gave the go ahead for Leifer to spend a year traveling from continent to continent for this unprecedented photographic quest.  “It could have been done at a fraction of the cost,” says Leifer. “We could have had TIME’s bureaus get the best athlete in each country and then have good local photographers do this. But you don’t get a continuity of approach that you’d get with one photographer.”

So with as much secrecy as possible to prevent the competition from catching on, Leifer and his assistant Anthony Suarez, started their journey. In those pre-internet, pre-email days, the magazine had a vast global network of more than two dozen bureaus to help wrangle athletes in each country and to cope with visas—no easy feat in a period when there were inherent political sensitivities in negotiating with countries like the Soviet Union or East Germany while an Olympic boycott brewing.

“It took weeks to set up each shoot,” says Leifer. “And there’s not a single one of these pictures where I use any artificial lighting.” Leifer says he spent days at the Parthenon figuring out how to get the best light to get the image ofworld champion in javelin, Sophia Sakorafa of Greece standing on a broken column, javelin raised in front of the ancient ruins. “I wanted her to look like she was on a Greek urn.” And so she did—without a bit of digital help.

“Today you could do half this thing on the computer,” Leifer explains. “You would take a Japanese gymnast and get rid of the background and put Mount Fuji there.” Instead, to get  the shot of gymnast Koji Gushiken in front of that famous white peak, Leifer had bring a cherry picker to the perfect spot and get a crew to hang the rings from the top. And finally, convince a nationally-prized athlete to mount that unusual apparatus and pose.

For the cover photo of American track star Carl Lewis jumping in front of the Statue of Liberty, Leifer hired a tugboat to take Lewis out into New York harbor. “Sure, maybe you could have photographed Carl on a trampoline in a studio and maybe it would have been more perfect, but the fun was doing it live and being there,” he says. And it is true that there is some unquantifiable about seeing these athletes actually in front of landmarks that so define their nation. It’s something a studio shot can’t match.

The most resounding no he got as far locations were concerned was from the then-communist government of East Germany which refused to let him photograph swimmer Kristin Otto in front of the Berlin Wall—a sore subject in 1983, just four years before president Ronald Reagan demanded that Russian leader Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” So instead, we see Otto in front of the soot-covered columns of Germany’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The result of Leifer’s efforts is a time capsule, not just because of all that has happened in the nearly 30 years since these images were taken—from the fall of the Soviet Bloc to the rise of China as a global superpower—but because projects of this scope, time frame and cost are even more rare than they were then.

Leifer, who will be 70-years-old in December, pivoted away from still photography in the late 90s (after racking up more than 200 cover images for TIME and Sports Illustrated), and is now focused on documentary filmmaking. But he will be back on the Olympic beat at the 2012 games in London with an on-site studio fromwhich he’ll make portraits of this year’s Olympians for NBC and Sports Illustrated.

Neil Leifer was a staff photographer with TIME, Life and Sports Illustrated. See more of his work, both in film and photography, on his website.

For a Female Boxer from Afghanistan, An Olympic Journey Ends

Nobody expected Sadaf Rahimi, the female boxer originally selected to represent Afghanistan at the Olympic Games this week, to do well in the ring. The mere fact that she would be representing her country was triumph enough. To get to the selection stage, she had to fend off social opprobrium, religious condemnation and even the disapproval of some of her own coaches who believed that women’s boxing shouldn’t go any further than the hobby stage. Rahimi won every one of those battles. Her path to London was but the latest leg of an extraordinary journey for Afghanistan’s women, who, little more than a decade ago, were forced to stay at home, denied the right to obtain an education, to work — and to play sports. She might have won over her countrymen, but in the end, she couldn’t make it past the International Boxing Association (AIBA), who decided on July 18 that she could not compete, citing concerns that boxing against opponents of much higher standards might threaten her safety in the ring. Not only is this a disappointment for Rahimi, her family and the aspirations of female Afghan athletes, it strikes a blow to the International Olympic Committee’s goal to have female athletes represent every country, just a week after Saudi Arabia, the last holdout, reluctantly agreed to send two female athletes.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

Rahimi had been preparing for the Olympics since February, when she was first notified that she would receive what is known as a wild-card invitation — a special berth granted to nations that would not otherwise be able to qualify an appropriately skilled athlete. Later that month she traveled to the U.K. to train in a special AIBA boxing camp, where she had her first taste of Olympic-caliber boxing. At first, she told TIME, she was getting knocked down “two to three times a day.” But by the end of the two-week program, she was starting to hold her own in the ring. Still, she was sanguine about her chances in London. “I am sure I will be punched like a bag. Like I am a pillow being pummeled,” she told TIME in April. “Whether I win a medal or not, I will be a symbol of courage as soon as I step into the ring.”

(Related: How to Compete in the Olympics While Fasting for Ramadan)

It is unclear why the AIBA waited until just over a week before the Olympics to revoke Rahimi’s invitation. In May, when Rahimi attended the women’s world boxing championships in China, her fight was stopped short, after a minute and 20 seconds, because she was doing so poorly. Her coach, as well as the Afghan National Olympic Committee, felt that her performance in China was an aberration, saying she had performed well in other international competitions. Rahimi, say close friends in Kabul, is disappointed. But she is looking forward to competing in other international events and still holds out hope that with a few more years to train, her chances in Rio 2016 will be even better. And back at home, in the ramshackle studio Rahimi shares with Afghanistan’s other boxers, she has already started winning some converts to her side. As the women’s club trickled out of the gym to make way for the men’s boxing team a few months ago, I stopped to ask one of the men’s coaches what he thought about the idea of women boxing. “At the beginning it was strange,” admitted Sayed Haroon. “Everything new is strange at first, but you can get used to anything if you see it enough times.” Rahimi may not be boxing in London this year, but she will continue the fight back home in Afghanistan.

To read more about Rahimi, read Baker’s piece here

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East bureau chief based in Kabul.

Andrea Bruce is a photographer based in Afghanistan. She was previously featured on LightBox after winning the Chris Hondros Award.