Ather Kamran Butt
Ather Kamran Butt

"I have always been fascinated by superheroes and their strength,” says power-lifting champion Ather Kamran Butt.

“As a child I used to hear stories about Hercules and Samson from my grandfather. My grandfather himself enjoyed and even indulged in a bit of bodybuilding and wrestling in his day. Then my father also emphasised on keeping fit. He we would wake up us kids early in the morning for running or jogging and always encouraged healthy sporting activity,” he says.

“I was about 15 or 16 when I started bodybuilding, lifting weights to get bigger and stronger.” He adds that powerlifting was something unheard of at the time, so he went for bodybuilding, though it never could match the joy of fulfillment and achievement which he gets from powerlifting. “This was years before the first national powerlifting championship, which took place in Lahore in 1999. And the Pakistan Powerlifting Federation came about only a little time before that,” he says.

Butt recently returned from Kazakhstan after bagging four golds in the Asian Classics Powerlifting Championship held there in November/December 2019. In Kazakhstan, Butt was the only one from Pakistan to compete against 22 nations. He was just on his own, without even a manager or physio. And once there he got to know that he might not even be allowed to compete as the International Powerlifting Federation had some issues with the Pakistan Powerlifting Federation. It was only after Butt’s personal intervention that he was able to compete and win the gold medals in three disciplines — bench presses, squats and dead-lifts — and an overall performance gold. Yet when he returned home, he still only had his family and friends to greet him at the airport and cheer for him.

Ather Kamran Butt has set records and achieved great honours both nationally and internationally in the arena of powerlifting. Yet he remains a relatively unknown sportsman in Pakistan

It’s always been a lone struggle for the powerlifter, but one he has excelled at through sheer determination.

Butt was the only power-lifter from Sindh at the first power-lifting championship in 1999, and while he won there, he created a record too. “At 86kg bodyweight I was doing bench presses for 170kg,” he says with a proud smile. All in all, he has featured in 14 national powerlifting championships between 1999 and 2015, winning and setting new records in all of them. He still has some eight national records to his name, which still stand in two different weight classes (86kg and 93kg), and all three disciplines.

Competing in the 255kg dead-lift during the Asia/Oceania Championship in Australia in 2014
Competing in the 255kg dead-lift during the Asia/Oceania Championship in Australia in 2014

In 2011, Butt turned international. He featured in the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championship, where he bagged gold in the bench press competition. “Bench press is the most popular discipline of powerlifting,” he explains. “It is so popular that it has its own championships.”

More on the international scene, Butt also won the Asia/Oceania Championship held in Australia in 2014, while beating Australia’s top and second biggest powerlifters on their home turf. Then in 2017, in the Commonwealth Bench Press Championship held in South Africa, he won another two gold medals. The four golds in Kazakhstan were only the cherry on top of his long list of achievements. “You may call it my swan song,” he says. “I am 50 now. I have decided to retire from active competitions now.”

Asked how the government had recognised his stellar achievements through the years and now his retiring while still at the top, Butt only laughs, before becoming silent with a long sigh.

Ather’s medal collection
Ather’s medal collection

He changes the subject, talking about other positive things. “My retiring from competitions doesn’t mean that I have stopped practising. I still train and, with my limited resources, I am also extending training and coaching to others. I have some fine students who are now also competing at the national level and winning too. Powerlifting training is not that simple. We train for five days a week and leave two days to rest and recover from our little injuries, such as pulled muscles here and there,” he says.

“But we still have a long way to go. Powerlifting is still not a professional sport here. The weights we train with are also not precise. When I went abroad to compete in England for the first time, that was where I saw things such as the belt and knee sleeves. Many of these basic things, which enhance performance, were not even available in Pakistan and we were still winning without them, within our mere resources,” he says. He adds that he and his trainees now get the belts made from Sialkot, and the other stuff they order online from abroad, provided they can afford it.

How does he compare powerlifters in Pakistan with the powerlifters of other countries? Butt says that, in countries such as England and Australia, there is support for the athletes from the private sector in the form of sponsors and endorsements. “They are also invited to speak at seminars and give lectures. England and Australia have a great infrastructure in place right from the school, college and university level. Here we don’t even have proper gym facilities. Even though my trip to Kazakhstan was sponsored, I noticed how their government sponsored training and paid team allowances,” he adds.

So how does he then support himself and manage to train his students too? Butt says that he is a qualified sports trainer who also extends his services for training other trainers at private sports facilities and gyms. “My company Kinetix, in fact, is a consultancy with a team of qualified trainers providing fitness training to the corporate or private sector,” he answers.

Sometimes, the only one you can rely on to pull your weight is yourself.

The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 19th, 2020