A group of young men with muscles to rival Popeye are hoping to make explosive arm wrestling bouts a national pastime in Mali after showcasing their skills in the first international tournament the country has hosted.
Sibiri “Superman” Traore and Mamadou “the German” Sylla fought it out with arms seemingly cut from rock at last week’s championship.
A hip-high table painted in the colours of the Malian flag stood between them, with a referee on either side, one of whom shouted “Go” to set them off.
As they grappled, crowds in the stadium shouted encouragement and filmed the action on their smartphones.
The game was a matter of seconds, biceps straining and trembling until — slam! — Traore released his grip from Sylla’s planted hand before basking in the crowd’s adulation.
It was only one of Traore’s victories that day. He was later crowned “champion of champions,” punching the air with delight, his waistband poking out above his jeans.
The Malian Arm Wrestling Federation (FMBS) organised a competition boasting two weight categories and overseen by Willy Deneumostier, secretary general of the sport’s global body, formed in 1977.
“I came to get an update on the invitation of Mali’s first lady,” said Deneumostier, a Belgian. The president’s wife Keita Aminata Maiga is the honorary president of the group.
– Must be ‘explosive’ –
Many in Mali are new to the idea of the sport as something other than a way of solving childish disputes.
But arm wrestling has its own techniques to master, said Frenchman Hadji Ibrahim, who travelled to Bamako for the competition.
“A match takes one or two seconds. It’s all about momentum, it has to be explosive, so we have to be concentrated on that ‘go’,” Ibrahim said.
“There are lots of technical movements to do, there is a lot of training at the table to learn the techniques, positions, starting points,” he added.
For superfan Boubacar Sidiki, 17, arm wrestling is a way of life that he wants to see become as popular as football or basketball, Mali’s national sports.
“We have to encourage Malians to practise it just as they do other sports. One day, I hope to be one of the competitors,” said Boubacar.
Also watching curiously from the sidelines was Mariam Sidibe, 18, who hopes a women’s competition will be next to emerge in Mali.
“I know for now it’s just guys, but everyone could do it,” she said.
The Malian arm wrestling association has existed since 2001. Its claimed membership of 250 shows the sport may have some way to go before threatening football for spectators.
Competitor Hadji says it is a matter of organisation that African nations must resolve if they are to rival the likes of Russia, whose contestants dominate the world of arm wrestling.
“When the Russians come to world championships, they bring 50 or so competitors,” rather than just three or four representing African nations.
The sport’s visibility in Africa remains low — but South Africa did host the 2004 world championships.
“There are federations which are starting up — but they are in their infancy and aren’t very experienced,” said Hadji.