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October 20, 2021
'Every single time I lift the bar, I'm just lifting my country up': Shiva Karout's quest for powerlifting glory

‘Every single time I lift the bar, I’m just lifting my country up’: Shiva Karout’s quest for powerlifting glory

It’s a barely a moment in time, but for a power lifter, 17 seconds is an eternity.

At the 2019 World Championships in Helsingborg, Sweden, the 31-year-old Lebanese lifter reached down to the barbell, attempting to deadlift more than three times his own weight: 255 kg.

First, his hamstrings and gluteal muscles took the strain, and then his quads. As his lower back engaged to pull the weight farther off the ground, his blood pressure would have been going “through the roof,” according to his coach Jose Brame.

With his entire body now quivering under the enormous stress, the agony was etched all over his face; his bulging eyes looked up, as if searching for inspiration, before he finally raised the weight to his thighs and locked his knees into place.

“I did not let go of those weights,” he told CNN Sport, “Because, deep down, I was lifting my country up. This is why I kept going for a whole 17 seconds with 255 kgs in my hands. That’s what I was feeling at the moment, and I will do that every single time I lift the bar, I’m just lifting my country up, day by day, year by year. That’s it.”
Shiva Karout, pictured training here in September 2021, says he is very proud to represent the country he loves.

‘Cars were flipped over’

The country of Lebanon and its nearly seven million citizens are in desperate need of a lift.

According to the United Nations, 82% of the population lives in multi-dimensional poverty. The economy has collapsed, prices are skyrocketing and according to Henri Chaoul, a former adviser to Lebanon’s finance ministry, chaotic governance has put the country on a “train to hell.” Earlier this year, Chaoul told CNBC that the metaphorical train was about to reach “the last station.”

Few images could ever illustrate the catastrophic unraveling of a nation quite like the extraordinary explosion that rocked the port city of Beirut on August 4, 2020, when a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate exploded. In an instant, more than 200 people were killed, thousands were injured and 300,000 people were made homeless.

Stored in the port since it was confiscated in 2013, the explosive material left a 400-foot wide crater and a trail of destruction spreading more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the epicenter of the blast.

Why the volatile material was being stored there remains a mystery to the judge who is overseeing a criminal negligence investigation that has made little progress. Some former officials are being sought for questioning, according to state media.

A report published by Human Rights Watch in August, summed up some of the reasons why.

“A range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation have rendered it incapable of credibly delivering justice. These flaws include a lack of judicial independence, immunity for high-level political officials, lack of respect for fair trial standards, and due process violations,” the report found.

When it happened, Shiva Karout was just 700 meters away (2,297 feet). He was standing with his hands on his head outside his gym, Barbell House, transfixed by the huge clouds of smoke and what sounded like the crackling of fireworks. But then, he says that a normal day turned to the apocalypse; at 6:08 p.m., the sun disappeared.

“It was just a huge blast,” he recalled. “It was like, it was a mushroom cloud.” Karout compared the feeling to being in a video game when a player’s avatar dies and regenerates. He says that when he woke up, his neighborhood resembled a war zone.

“Suddenly, it was gloomy, ashes everywhere. Cars were flipped over. Dead people were on the streets, people cut open. The gym looked like rubble.”

It’s been estimated by a team of experts at the University of Sheffield, that the blast was one of the most powerful artificial non-nuclear explosions in history.

The equivalent of more than a kiloton of TNT had been detonated in an instant, creating a shockwave that was felt in four neighboring countries, heard as far away as Cyprus, 150 miles to the northwest, and which the United States Geological Survey says generated a seismic event of a 3.3 magnitude on the Richter Scale.

A cell phone video shot by one of Karout’s friends shows him watching the fire, then the immediate destruction and the chaotic aftermath. The powerlifter had borne the full force of the blast with his body, but he says he was lucky to have been on the street, outside.

He broke down with emotion as he described the scene of carnage back inside the gym: “It was upside down; everything was broken into pieces. We had plenty of casualties and a really dear friend of ours, he passed away.”

Karout says the lifters who frequent the gym are more of a community than clients, more family than friends. “Everyone knows everyone in here, I’ve been training with this guy for four years straight, six days a week. I think of him every single day, honestly. Every single day.”

More than a year later, he’s still raw with emotion, and even if he wanted to forget, he can’t: some of the blood just won’t wash off the barbells.

A picture shows the scene near the port, where the explosion took place.

‘Hell on earth’

Shiva Karout followed his father into martial arts, telling CNN, “He believed that it makes a person humble, and it makes them a bit wiser.”

From the age of three, Karout was involved in martial arts himself, also taking yoga classes with his dad, and at five, he ventured into karate and judo, winning “plenty” of fights and tournaments.

At the age of 21, he began fighting in Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing, winning some and losing some. “This is life,” he reasoned. “We don’t always win, [but] we [always] learn.”

By 2015, he’d discovered powerlifting, and in 2018, he went professional, quickly finding success in only his second international competition in Dallas, Texas.

“I got awarded best lifter of the event and it was the first time I was sponsored. This is where my journey began and this is where I began hunting to become world champion.”

Karout believes that anybody can lift weights, if they train hard enough, but what makes him special is his attitude. “What I believe I have different than most of the other people is the mental state,” he said.

“What I’ve been through as a citizen of Lebanon, we’ve been through a lot. I believe that my mental game is much, much stronger than any other lifter out there.

“Being Lebanese is not just what you hold in your passport, it’s something really deep inside, it’s blood related.” He goes on to describe the hardships that plague everyday life for so many of his compatriots, “As a Lebanese, you tend to survive every single day. You tend to survive life itself.”

All over the world, gym walls are plastered with motivational slogans and Barbell House is no different. Step through the doorway at 435 Pasteur Street and you’ll see the words “Love Your Pain” in large white letters on a black background. But Shiva Karout says the reality of training in Beirut these days is more like “Hell on earth.”

“You don’t get the electricity you need; you don’t get the water you need. It’s not even a third world country.” He explains that the government is only able to provide three hours of electricity per day, after which the residents are on their own. Many try to keep the lights on with generators, but lately, the gas that powers them has also been in short supply.

He says that recently he has spent weeks training in the dark, without lights, fans, or air conditioning. “It’s 31 degrees [88 degrees Fahrenheit], it’s humid, you’re training with a lack of oxygen and high pollution. It was really suffocating for me.”

And then there’s the economic situation, the crippling inflation which has made purchasing just the gas to keep the generators running impossible for many.

The World Bank estimated inflation to be at about 85% in 2020, raising the price of basic food by 400%. Karout explains that $700 in Lebanon is now worth just $60.

So, in addition to training for the World Championships in Sweden, Karout says he has two extra jobs: He works at the gym as a personal trainer from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., before returning home to work on his food preparation business — “Shiva’s Cuisine.” Sometimes, he also waits tables in a restaurant, adding, “This is how I’m able to survive in this country.”

Karout has tattoos on his body  which he says tells his story.

‘Excruciating pain’

Rarely has any athlete pursued the goal of becoming a world champion in such difficult circumstances, but to make matters worse, Karout also contracted Covid-19, spending one day in hospital, 11 days in bed and three weeks “in excruciating pain.” He says that at the nadir of his suffering, he couldn’t even hold his phone to speak with his friends and family.

The economic situation meant that he could no longer afford a trainer, but from 7,000 miles away, help came to him. Perhaps fittingly, that help is called “Raise the Dead.” That’s the name of a powerlifting team in Texas, trained by 32-year-old Brame, who has become one of Shiva’s biggest fans.

They met a couple of years ago, when Karout was traveling alone in the US, and he asked Brame for some smelling salts — a powerlifter’s trick to help gain focus. Despite his intimidating appearance, Brame says he took to him immediately.

“He looks like one of the most intense men I’ve ever met,” Brame told CNN Sport, describing his beard and neck tattoos. “But he’s incredibly nice. Rocking personality. Something that is unfaltering about Shiva is that he is all about honor, to a T. When he lifts, he thanks his judges, he puts a smile on, he gets excited, and his energy is contagious.”

Karout’s sense of honor almost prevented him from working with Brame because the Texas coach was offering to help for free.

“He did not want to take my services because he valued me more than that,” said Brame. “I had to combat him two or three times, saying ‘I believe in you, I want to love on you, and I want to help get you back to worlds.’ He thanked me highly and said, ‘I think I want to do that.’

“Shiva’s such a great guy and what he’s had to go through is incredible. My heart really went out for him because no world class athlete should have to train uncoached.”

Brame now watches videos that are sent from the gym in Beirut, providing feedback and helping with training schedules. He’s impressed with how much stronger Shiva has become over the last four months and thinks that a top-10 finish is now well within reach.

A tattoo depicts the explosion with tears forming the outline of Lebanon.

‘Traumatized’

Shiva says he doesn’t know how many tattoos are covering his body; they’re all connected to each other, pieces of art that represent his story, his life, and the way that he thinks. Anything on the right tends to be positive; the bad things go on the left.

His right arm is one of his favorites, bearing an image of his late father along with the Buddha, the Virgin Mary, a Hindu sign, a church and a mosque and a saying from the Quran. He says that he is highly spiritual and will never judge anybody based on their religion.

On his left leg, there is an image of his eye, which represents his view of the 2020 blast. Reflected within the eye, a depiction of the explosion and the tears which are running down his leg form the shape of the Lebanese map.

It’s an event that still haunts him and which always motivates him. He told CNN: “Every single one of us had someone that either died that day or was wounded, and every single one of us that saw this explosion or lived this explosion is traumatized.”

He describes the deaths as “murder,” adding that more than a year later, there is still no explanation of how it happened or who was responsible.

Since then, he has trained in clothing bearing the names of all the victims. He says that’s now all he thinks about when he trains.

“I don’t think about anything else because I’m not doing it for self-pleasure or self-satisfaction. I’m doing it to represent my country. I’m doing it to represent my people, to give hope for my people. Regardless of whatever is happening to us, we can still get out there and achieve our dreams; we can still do it.

“I will never quit because, if I quit, I’d be quitting on my people and not on myself. There is no way I’ll be quitting on them.”