The wait for an individual gold medal at the world stage in bodybuilding was ended by an over ambitious Ivan Byekwaso in 2015.
Bodybuilding is an interesting sport where competitors perform mandatory posing routines for a panel of judges who rank them based on symmetry, muscularity, size, conditioning, posing, and stage presentation.
Professional bodybuilding is riddled with growing concerns of illegal use of steroids. Thus there are two credible organisations; World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) and International Natural Bodybuilding Association (INBA). Byekwaso chose to belong to INBA.
Byekwaso’s moment of reckoning was in 2015, when he emerged world champion in the short men category beating seasoned campaigners; Nate Inman, Antonio Garcia, Dustin Glenn and Andrew Molinar.
Going to America
It was a tough build-up to the World Cup in San Diego, US. Byekwaso, who puts meticulous focus on symmetry and proportion, had just separated with his wife and the break-up weighed heavily on him.
“I could not figure out what to do,” Byekwaso recalls. “But I imagined that I now had to work hard for myself and my children. I spent a lot of time working out at Buziga Country Club. I knew if I did not work harder, life would be tough for me.”
His routine work as a bouncer at night clubs was unfulfilling. Bodybuilding was his calling and it always made him feel refreshed. He had won everything in Uganda including Mr Kampala and the prestigious Mr Uganda title and was now looking like an elephant in a room.
“My goal was to show what I could do at the world stage. I had done it before in smaller competitions but I wanted to exert myself,” he adds.
The son of former president Idi Amin’s driver was eager to show his uniqueness. Though the negative vibes kept coming. Byekwaso talks of a friend who gave him Shs50,000 and told him to forget about winning in the World Championships.
“If it is not done, then it is not possible. I had to make it possible,” Byekwaso says admitting he did not know how far he could go. Jack Pemba, who was known for splashing money on celebrities soon met Byekwaso and they formed a partnership.
Byekwaso acted as Pemba’s bodyguard at his Serena Hotel suite or during his night escapades around city bars.
To pay the loyalty, Pemba funded Byekwaso’s trip to San Diego with a reported $20,000 (about Shs70m) purse and the two were the only East Africans in the hall as Byekwaso shone the brightest.
A heroic welcome was accorded to him with Minister of Finance Matia Kasaija among those in the VIP lounge at Entebbe International Airport.
He missed the third accolade later that year when he was disqualified from the Natural Olympia championship in Las Vega in the first round.
“Up to now I don’t know why I was disqualified,” Byekwaso recalls.
Bodybuilding in Uganda has not been the same since Ivan Byekwaso sought refuge in Germany in 2016.
As Moses Golola is to kickboxing, so is Byekwaso’s cult hero status to bodybuilding. He has been the poster boy of the sport as justified by being named Uganda Sports Press Association (Uspa) Bodybuilder of the Year six times (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2015) whilst winning the Mr Uganda title an unprecedented five times.
Byekwaso was his own promoter, manager, coach and athlete.
When he left, Isaac Mubikirwa kept enthusiasts excited winning the Mr Uganda title thrice (2017, 2018 and 2019). The title had been won by Ben Lukwago in February 2016.
Actually, Lukwago had won on his 10th attempt as he lived in Byekwaso’s shadow for that long. Andrew Ssenoga claimed it late that year in November.
The cast of Vincent Mwai, Andrew Ssenoga, Lameck Muwanga, Andrew Kibuuka and Farouk Miyagi were mere pretenders before Byekwaso.
For his efforts to compete at the world stage, Byekwaso continuously earned the praise of the International Natural Bodybuilding Association (INBA) World president, Denny Kakos. INBA had plans of hosting a world event in Uganda courtesy of Byekwaso’s feats at the global stage.
He had made baby steps by hosting the 2011 Musclemania Africa Natural Fitness Championship in Kampala, at Theatre La Bonita with partners, Muscle Meddy Fitness Company.
For quite some time, he represented Uganda at the FAME Africa Championships and the NAC World Championships in Luxembourg. But after participating in the World Championships in Hungary in June 2016, Byekwaso felt enough was enough and sought refuge in Germany.
Sitting with trouble
For so many years, Byekwaso was not in his usual territory. He sat so long with trouble waiting for the good times to come. Once he considered representing Rwanda. Moving to Germany took him off the ledge. While he was being hailed as a world conqueror especially by the passionate media, Byekwaso actually lived as an outcast in Uganda.
His children, Whitney Nakazibwe and William Byekwaso were the apple in his eyes. He had lived with Nakazibwe since seven months after being abandoned by her mother. As a single father, he took care of his children yet in order to survive, he had to do odd jobs of guarding money-splashing dons including the late Ivan Ssemwanga, Mike Ezra and Pemba among others.
He always put up appearances. Cruising his aged Toyota Celica, he hid his adorable muscles and sorrows behind the dark shades.
Well-wishers were his greatest treasure in the golden hunt. He was supposed to be a good man to the likes of city preacher Bro. Ronnie Makabai of ETM Church to be able to get air tickets to competitions. Pemba made Byekwaso realise his INBA World Cup triumph and the Natural Olympia in 2015.
His presence at high profile night clubs like Deuces, Guvnor and Club Silk exposed him to businessmen like Michael Majeed of Seafast Logistics, who at one time donated $1,700 (about Shs6m) to facilitate the trip to the Miami Pro World bodybuilding Championships in London, England.
The other good samaritan Byekwaso had an ear for was Bulaimu Muwanga Kibirige, commonly known as BMK.
Aside from being a fitness instructor, the professional chef, gave a try at catering before making his way into bodybuilding. In his formative years, he was a goal keeper but had to do odd jobs to make it through school.
Death of an heir
The tragic passing of Stanley Kibirige was a big blow to bodybuilding. Adored in Sweden, Kibirige had all the attributes to be Byekwaso’s heir.
During the Christmas holiday of 2011, when Kibirige visited Uganda, Byekwaso was humbled by the talent of the promising bodybuilder who had been tipped for a lucrative role as a ‘Gladiator’ in Hollywood. Sadly, he passed on in February 2012 with his Swedish finess and African muscles.
Ssenoga, Mubikirwa and everyone in between who came after the undisputed Mr Uganda, have been trying to chase Byekwaso’s shadow.
Dead in Uganda, incarcerated in German prison
In 2018, Byekwaso was rumoured dead while in prison after his then estranged Ugandan girlfriend framed him for rape for which he was imprisoned. He resurfaced later with thawed muscles. “It was the most trying time for me as a person in a foreign country. But I forgive whoever trumped those cases against me,” he would later say.
Byekwaso has now chosen to represent Germany after working as a fitness instructor in Munich.
His stay will now get longer as plans to wed his girlfriend, Victoria Bechtold are in high gear. The couple is expecting their first child before the end of this year. For now, his dream of establishing a fitness and training centre in Uganda is dead as he keeps his career hopes sky high.
June 2014: Silver Medal at the INBA Championships in Slovakia.
September 2015: World Champion INBA in San Diego
November 2015: Natural Olympia in Las Vegas.
March 2016: Goes missing in Germany
September 2018: Falsely rumoured dead.