El Salvador flexes its muscles at Pan Am Games bodybuilding

              Competitors flex their muscles in the men's classic event at the debut of bodybuilding as an official sport at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, Saturday, Aug.10, 2019. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

LIMA, Peru (AP) — They flexed their muscles glistened with oil on the bright pink stage, blew kisses to the crowd and smiled to the judges, trembling to keep the posture on their toned and deeply tanned bodies.

This was not just any competition. All those hours up at dawn for heavy weight routines. All those strict diets. All culminated in this moment in the spotlight on the world’s stage.

In the end, tiny El Salvador came out strongest in Saturday’ debut of bodybuilding as an official sport in the Pan American Games. Paulina Zamora won the gold medal in the women’s fitness category, while Yuri Rodriguez, also from the Central American country, earned gold in men’s classic bodybuilding.

“Our sport is hard. I’m not going to lie telling you that you enjoy the pain of weights,” Rodriguez said after the medal ceremony.

“This hurts, but when you achieve something like this, you say to yourself: ‘I can do it and I would give much more.’ We’ve made history. My name is immortal. I’m the first Pan American bodybuilding champion.”

In all, 16 women and 32 men participated in the tournament. The women competed in the fitness category with choreography and acrobatics to catchy tunes and glittery outfits. Mexico’s Xyomara Valdivia won silver and Belen Figueroa of Chile earned bronze. The men in their posing trunks contested in classic bodybuilding. Colombia’s Carlos Giraldo won silver and Guatemala’s Jonathan Martinez took bronze expanding and bending their balloon-like biceps, deltoids and trapeziuses.

But it was more than just flexing muscles. Judges evaluated symmetry, or the equal development between the right and the left side of their body; harmony, or equal development between the body’s upper and lower sides; and muscularity, or the athletes’ fit shape.

“I’m still dreaming,” said Rodriguez, who wore a top hat and a red top on stage for a routine set at a circus and inspired by the film “The Greatest Showman.”

“El Salvador is a country that has gone through so much suffering, so many injustices,” Rodriguez said about the country that is home to some 6.5 million people and that is troubled by hardships, including poverty and gangs that drive mass migration to the United States.

“Maybe not enough has been given to the sport because of these injustices, so these types of achievements bring much-deserved joy to my country.”

The crowd at the coliseum roared when the competitors from across the Americas took the stage.

Venezuela’s Paola Callejas performed spins, splits and backflips to fast merengue beats. Brazil’s Carla Ferreira balanced her fit body on a grey pilates ball, did push-up s and jumped in the air before she ended her routine on a Samba note. Bolivia’s Celia Zabala wore a traditional Andean costume with a feathered hat and punched the air with her fists to music that mixed indigenous tunes and fast tempo beats. Jamaica’s Sherea Clarke wore an outfit in the black, yellow and green national flag and performed splits to dub music. Paraguay’s Jessica Cibilis gyrated to a rumba.

From the concrete stands, members of a gym owned by Peruvian competitor Francisco Rodriguez waved a large white and red Peruvian flag. They were joined by Rodriguez’s wife, and their five-year-old son. For months, he had been waking up at dawn to open the gym, train for hours and follow a strict diet that was heavy on proteins. From stage, Rodriguez smiled broadly and blew a kiss after he posed for the judges.

Bodybuilding featured as a demonstration sport in Toronto 2015, but its official inclusion into the Pan Am Games in Lima was celebrated by officials and loyal supporters who take their training seriously.

“This means a lot to the sport of bodybuilding because it’s a dream that came true,” the president of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness Rafael Santonja told The Associated Press.

“It’s an inspiration for all our athletes,” said Santoja, who has been bodybuilding for nearly 50 years. “It represents the Olympic ideals, the Olympic principles, and this is a boost for the bodybuilding lifestyle. We’re very proud to be in the Pan American Games.”

For now, bodybuilding is not included as part of the official competitions for the 2023 games in the Chilean capital of Santiago or the Olympics. But Santonja said it continues to grow worldwide, and he hopes it will be included in the next Pan Am Games.