Newly-appointed Prime Minister Robert Abela’s bodybuilding days show that the man is determined and goal-focused, according to sport veterans.
Soon after being declared winner of the Labour Party election on Sunday – after garnering 57.9% of party members’ votes – a photograph of Dr Abela posing during a bodybuilding competition in 1997 went viral.
As people gawked at the muscles on the man who would lead the country 23 years after that photo was snapped – others who understand the sport said it came as no surprise that a former bodybuilder had the traits to win an election – and lead a country.
Bodybuilder Dominic Schieda remembers Dr Abela training at Bertu’s Gym in Għargħur in the late 1990s.
“He used to come on the weekends. I remember that he was very dedicated… when I heard that he had entered politics and was trusted by [former prime minister] Joseph Muscat I said to myself: here is someone who will reach high places,” said Mr Schieda, who has been training and competing in bodybuilding, locally and internationally, for 26 years.
It is a tough discipline that requires motivation and willpower
Since that photo was taken Dr Abela, now 42, went on to become a lawyer, get married, start a family and become politician – following the footsteps of his father, former President George Abela, who described his son as “focused” with “a very clear, sharp mind”.
While Dr Abela stopped training for competitive bodybuilding, he has been quoted saying he still regularly trains at the gym.
Bodybuilding journalist Kevin Grech, who set up the international bodybuilding website Evolution of Bodybuilding, said that while he never met Dr Abela, he knew countless bodybuilders and practised the sport in the 1990s.
It is a tough discipline that requires motivation and will-power, he said.
“To get to contest takes a lot of sacrifice – training and strict dieting. No other sport is so physically and mentally demanding… Just like Arnold Schwarzenegger had said, bodybuilding teaches you to set goals and achieve them,” Mr Grech said.
Mr Schwarzenegger, an Austrian-American actor and former professional bodybuilder, served as Governor of California from 2003 to 2011. He has said of the sport: “The resistance that you fight physically in the gym and the resistance that you fight in life can only build a strong character.”
Ralph Decelis, president of the Malta Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, said one had to be “an achiever” in bodybuilding.
While Mr Decelis did not practise with Dr Abela, they played football together at St Aloysius College. “I was centre forward and he was goalkeeper,” he said.
Only time will tell if Dr Abela turns out to be a safe pair of hands for Malta.