Twelve-year-old Gilbert Alaskadi knelt on the dirt floor of his bedroom and slipped open the envelope, taking care not to tear it. He had never opened his uncle’s mail before, and he would be in for a beating if he were discovered. But something about this envelope had caught his eye: a small illustration of a herculean figure striking six men simultaneously into the air. Perhaps, he thought, this envelope contained something that could protect him.
He pulled the colorful pamphlet into his hands and scanned its contents. It was an advertisement for a bodybuilding magazine that promised readers they could be “the strongest man in the world.” Alaskadi had never heard of bodybuilding. In Chad, the north-central African country where he lived, the impoverished population had little access to the culture of fitness that was growing in popularity elsewhere in the world. But the pamphlet’s message was simple and intoxicating: Become invincible.
“I thought it was some sort of magic.” Alaskadi, now 59, says, at the bodybuilding gym he runs in London. “That is how I got into bodybuilding: I wanted to be invincible.” In the corner of the gym is a life-size cutout of Alaskadi posing proudly in a red Speedo, his gleaming, rippled physique bulging so enormously out of proportion that it appears somehow isolated from his own head. The picture was taken as he won the British Bodybuilding Championships in 2004, and Alaskadi remains imposing 15 years later. While not a tall man, his chest protrudes beyond his chin, and his biceps inflate his shirt like air in a balloon. Yet he speaks with a gentle voice and walks slowly now, with the aid of a crutch — the result of four knee replacement surgeries, kidney failure, and a major back operation.
In the nearly five decades since Alaskadi laid eyes on the pamphlet that promised him invincibility, he has overcome an array of Goliath-like obstacles: forced servitude; imprisonment; separation from loved ones; and the reality of losing everything, again and again. But for a time, he seemed truly invincible.
Alaskadi’s saga begins at the age of 10, when his father, an important elder in their remote village in southern Chad, was murdered. His mother was unable to cope with raising five children alone and sent him to live with his uncle’s family in the nearby city of Moundou. Alaskadi was immediately set to work filling in the marshland that surrounded their home. Whenever he wasn’t at school, he was forced to toil. He was last to eat and wasn’t even allowed to sit at the table. If he stepped out of line, his uncle beat him. At school, he struggled with exams and was bullied for his unwashed clothes and slight physique.
After a failed attempt to run away at the age of 11, he was beaten nearly to death. For another five years, he saw no way out, fearful of attempting another escape. Finally, he was left with no choice. One day, deep in the bush, his uncle’s truck failed to start. He told Alaskadi to climb underneath and search for the problem. Without warning, the engine started and the truck accelerated forward. “The wheel missed my head by inches,” he recalls. He knew it was no accident; his uncle wanted him dead before he got old enough to fight back.
Soon after, he waited until everyone was asleep and slipped into his uncle’s bedroom. He reached into the man’s jacket, which was hanging on a chair, and pulled out a handful of bills. In Alaskadi’s bag were a few clothes and the bodybuilding brochure he had kept since discovering it on his bedroom floor, neatly folded into a Bible, four years earlier. He hitchhiked his way out of the country, selling his spare clothes and only pair of shoes along the way. In Lagos, Nigeria, he found a job as a laborer in the compound of a British family, the Whites. Now 17, with his own money and a roof over his head, he was finally able to turn his attention to the sport he was convinced would be his savior: bodybuilding.
He created DIY dumbbells from concrete, although he had no idea how much they weighed until he could stand on a scale with them. He welded together a bench, and the small patio outside his room now looked somewhat like the gyms in his bodybuilding magazines. Armed with the knowledge of some basic exercises, he spent every spare minute training. His quest for invincibility had begun.
Alaskadi’s new life was taking shape, but he missed the family members he had abandoned so suddenly: his mother, siblings and cousins who lived in Moundou and the surrounding villages. Returning, even for a short time, would mean facing his uncle, but he could no longer let that stop him. A few months before he went home, he sent his uncle a letter stating that he held no resentment toward him and wasn’t seeking revenge for his maltreatment.
But returning to Chad was dangerous for other reasons. It was 1979 and the country’s long-running civil war had spiraled out of control. The Christian south and Muslim north had been fighting for years, and the French colonialists had realized that reconciliation was impossible and withdrawn. In the power vacuum, rebel groups were fighting amongst themselves, reducing the capital, N’Djamena, to rubble and forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee south to Moundou.
One of those fleeing with her family was 13-year-old Damarese Nayo. When the bombs had started falling near her home, her father had told her and her siblings not to leave their compound. “Everyone was so scared,” she says. Soon snipers began firing indiscriminately in the city. “I was sitting under a tree at home, and a bullet hit the trunk just above my head. The next day, everybody left the city. We ran, we didn’t know where to go.”
Nayo and her family headed to the border with Nigeria, where they climbed on top of a truck bound for Moundou. Nayo sat with her family, her baby brother in her arms. As she rode, she noticed an older boy standing on the rear bumper of the truck, clinging to an exterior rail and shifting his position to avoid the fumes from the exhaust. He seemed to be staring at her, which annoyed Nayo. “I thought: Who is this guy looking at me?”
From the back of the truck, Alaskadi had recognized Nayo. “I remembered seeing her years before,” he says, “when I visited my aunt’s house in N’Djamena. She looked so nice now.” Alaskadi wanted to talk to Nayo, so he offered to hold her brother. “She just ignored me. I don’t think she liked me looking at her,” he recalls. As they disembarked, Nayo and her family melted into the crowd, and Alaskadi turned his thoughts to facing his uncle.
In order to diffuse the confrontation with his uncle, Alaskadi reverted to subservience and spent much of his time in Chad building an extension to the house. He returned to Nigeria two weeks later, exhausted but glad to have seen his family and satisfied that his uncle no longer wanted him dead.
Arriving back in Lagos, Alaskadi passed a fitness shop that was proudly displaying a new book by Mr. Universe sensation Arnold Schwarzenegger in the window. A few minutes later, he emerged with a copy of Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder in his hands and a grin across his face.
With the help of an English-to-French dictionary, the book became Alaskadi’s training bible. By putting its lessons to use with his ever increasing array of DIY equipment, his physique exploded. Meanwhile, he gained the trust of the Whites and began working in their kitchen, alongside the family’s chef. He was so valued that they acquired him a Chadian passport — usually reserved for the wealthy and important — so that he could accompany them around the country and pass through the vast array of checkpoints without issue.
But, in 1984, Alaskadi’s life in Nigeria came to an abrupt end. The oil boom of the late ’70s had prompted millions of workers to flood in from neighboring countries, generating resentment and unrest among local Nigerians, who were suffering from high unemployment. The government decided to expel everyone in the country without a work visa, of which Alaskadi was one.
The 30-hour bus ride back to Moundou was arduous. There was a stale stench of body odor in the air as the bus pulled up to the final checkpoint at the edge of the city. Alaskadi, now 24, had spent most of the journey thinking about building a new gym for himself once back in Chad, since he had been forced to leave his equipment in Nigeria. Perhaps he could use his encyclopedic knowledge of training to open Chad’s first bodybuilding gym.
As this thought warmed Alaskadi’s imagination, a government soldier boarded the bus to check passengers’ identification. He moved from row to row, the barrel of his AK-47 rifle bouncing gently off the padded seat backs. Alaskadi was unaware that Libya — Chad’s northern neighbor, then led by Muammar Gaddafi — wanted to seize control of the oil fields near the desert border. Libya had been accused of sending antigovernment mercenaries into Moundou to stoke tensions: mercenaries with bulging muscles and immaculate documentation.
The soldier glared at Alaskadi’s passport. “Why do you have this?” he asked, his eyes coming to rest on Alaskadi’s bulging arms. Alaskadi explained that his employers had given it to him, but the soldier was unconvinced. Nobody else had a passport. Nobody else looked like they could lift the bus with their bare hands. “I am keeping it; the police commissioner will need to stamp it,” the soldier declared. “Collect it from his office tomorrow.”
The police commissioner’s office was a wide, three-story bare concrete building next to the river. Under the watchful eye of a guard, Alaskadi crossed the dusty courtyard. He was led through a corridor and into a large room with no windows, where a man in high-ranking military uniform sat behind a mahogany desk. In his hand was Alaskadi’s passport. His gaze rose slowly, and he spoke in a soft, intimidating tone. “And who are you?”
Alaskadi responded timidly: “Gilbert Alaskadi, sir.”
“I know your name. But who are you?” the commissioner demanded.
“I was living in Nigeria, sir, I am from Moundou.”
“Who do you work for?” The man narrowed his stare as though attempting to read Alaskadi’s thoughts. “Who gave you this passport?”
“I was working for Europeans in Nigeria, they gave me the passport,” Alaskadi explained.
“You are here to fight against us, aren’t you?!” the commissioner snapped.
“I don’t know anything about that, sir,” Alaskadi said, as the terrifying realization of what was happening arrived, with a cold sweat in tow. “I am an athlete, perhaps I will travel to Europe one day, so I need my passport. Please,” he offered, desperately.
“Oh, you travel to Europe too?” The commissioner said, a sarcastic grin across his face. “Sit down!” he ordered.
Alaskadi lowered himself into the chair and pulled a bundle of bills from his pocket. He held it out across the desk. In Chad, this was how difficult situations were often resolved.
The commissioner’s hand swung through the air, colliding with Alaskadi’s outstretched arm, sending the cash flying across the desk. He stood up, furious. “You think I am like those soldiers on the street?” he yelled, pulling a revolver from under the desk. “Say one more word and I’ll kill you right here.” The barrel rested a few inches from Alaskadi’s chest. “I’m sending you to N’Djamena. You can tell it to them.”
Alaskadi remains convinced that the only reason he wasn’t killed immediately was that they thought he had information. He was taken to a small holding cell at the back of the compound, ready to be transported to the capital. What happened to prisoners in the capital was common knowledge. “They hung captives from a meat hook to get information from them,” Alaskadi says with a wince. “Then a machine slowly chopped them into pieces while they were still alive. Imagine. Then they take the pieces to the mincer and throw what comes out into the river.” Many have since recounted how, during the years of war in Chad, the capital’s river regularly ran red.
The dirt floor of the tiny holding cell was damp and the smell of stale urine filled the air. The cage encircling it was rusty and misshapen, though not enough to be ineffective. In the corner, another figure lay silent. Outside, two guards with rifles sat on crooked stools. The atmosphere of grim despair was suffocating.
Late in the night, the guards yanked the door open and dragged the silent man from the cell. They beat him, tied his hands and feet together, and placed him in a large sack before carrying him out in the direction of the river bank. Alaskadi knew it would be his turn next. He told himself: “Gilbert, time to fight for your life.”
When the larger of the two guards left his stool, Alaskadi saw his opportunity. The remaining guard was tall but slight and held a long rifle that was impractical for short-range combat. Alaskadi knew he could overpower him if only he could get out of the cell. He begged the guard to let him relieve himself outside. “Please, I am not an animal. You have a gun, what am I going to do?” he said.
The guard stared at Alaskadi. “Try anything and I’ll kill you,” he said. “Turn around and put your arms up.” He opened the cage and led Alaskadi toward the riverbank, the butt of his rifle in the small of Alaskadi’s back.
Alaskadi’s hand swept around so quickly that he surprised himself. It wrapped itself around the barrel of the rifle while his other hand pulled its strap tightly around the guard’s neck. Within seconds Alaskadi’s immense frame had swallowed the man in an all-encompassing bear hug. He carried him a few feet over to the crest of the riverbank, which, owing to it being dry season, offered a steep slope down to the water. In a single motion, he threw the guard and his gun into the darkness, then scrambled down the slope. He ran along the side of the water, resisting the temptation to look back to discover the man’s fate, guessing that “he was probably hurt, but not dead.”
He reached the wide, dusty bridge that marked the southern edge of the city and clambered up to the road. A truck with a local plate approached, its lights briefly blinding Alaskadi as he stretched out his arm. The vehicle slowed and he pulled himself up to the cab, relieved to see a member of Alaskadi’s own tribe — recognizable by his skin color and facial features — at the wheel.
“Where are you going?” the man asked. “As far as you can take me.” Alaskadi replied. He slipped into the passenger seat and, with a clatter, the truck heaved itself into the darkness, toward the border with Cameroon.
Rows of neatly ordered dumbbells ran along the edge of the enormous room. In its center were countless machines dedicated to individual muscle groups, alongside an array of electronic cardiovascular machines. The clanking of metal and the musty smell of sweat filled the air. In an open mezzanine below the vaulted ceiling, a pair of bodybuilders were stretching. This was on the outskirts of Angé, France, and at the age of 29, Alaskadi had just stepped into a real bodybuilding gym for the first time.
“I just stood there with my mouth open,” he says. “I couldn’t speak.”
It had been five years since Alaskadi escaped the cell in Chad and arrived in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon. At first he lived in a shared room with seven other men and did hard labor to get by. Within a couple of years, he was working around the clock in the compound of a French family — coincidentally called the Gilberts — as their chef and security guard. He built himself a new gym, and in the little time between jobs he trained hard.
Paul Pere, a former competitive weightlifter and friend of the Gilbert family, spotted Alaskadi training in the compound and was impressed with his intense dedication and strong physique. When the Gilberts left Cameroon, 63-year-old Pere employed Alaskadi in his own compound and became something of a father figure to him. Two years later, when Pere was forced to return to France for medical treatment, he asked Alaskadi to accompany him.
Pere brought Alaskadi to the gym on the outskirts of Angé, which was run by a French bodybuilding champion named Roger Prevost. Soon, people began suggesting that Alaskadi should compete. Prevost offered to teach him how to pose. When he told Alaskadi to remove his shirt and trousers, “I told him, ‘No way!’” Alaskadi says, laughing as he recalls the moment. “I didn’t want to take my clothes off. I didn’t want to compete. I told him I was training for myself.”
But, after encouragement from Pere, Alaskadi finally agreed. He removed his clothes and began posing. People in the gym stopped training. “Everyone was looking at me and talking, some were taking pictures,” Alaskadi says. The following month, he entered a local competition and won the heavyweight category.
A week later Alaskadi entered another competition, one that attracted bodybuilders from all over France, assuming he had little chance of winning. In the changing room before the show he removed his shirt and began to oil his body. “Where did he come from?” came a chorus from the other competitors.
Alaskadi won. “I just raised my arms,” he recalls. “Everyone jumped onstage with me.” The following day, the local newspaper came to interview him at the gym. People approached him in the street asking for autographs. “I became a star within a week. That is when I got the feeling that competitive bodybuilding could be for me.”
Soon Alaskadi had increased his winning streak to three, this time in the Angé Grand Prix. By 1989 he had won four events, and placed fifth in the Marseille Grand Prix, a near professional level competition. It seemed everything was falling into place.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over: Alaskadi’s application to renew his French visa was rejected, and he was forced to fly back to Cameroon.
From his room in Pere’s compound, Alaskadi sent countless requests to bodybuilding federations around the world, hoping to be invited to compete. He was training hard and working as a nightclub bouncer and personal bodyguard to the club’s owner. When invitations failed to materialize, he organized his own competition, but the level of entrants was poor. “I thought that was it. No more competition bodybuilding for me,” he says.
But something else important happened in Cameroon. In church one day, he gazed across the pews and saw a familiar face: the girl he had seen fleeing on the truck during the journey home to Moundou years earlier.
Damarese Nayo had decided to follow in her older brother’s footsteps and study political science at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon. She arrived in 1993 for a two-year stay, living with her uncle. Each Sunday, she would go to the local church popular among Chadians, with members of her family. She was even more beautiful than Alaskadi remembered; her high cheekbones and glittering eyes combined with a shy smile that he found infatuating. He made small talk after each mass, hoping to develop a relationship with her.
Later that year, Alaskadi was finally invited to compete abroad, in the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association Mr. Universe contest, held in Birmingham, England. It was his first competition in four years, and when he arrived he immediately felt out of his depth.
“At the hotel buffet the night before the contest,” he says, “I ate everything.” When he told people he was competing the following morning, they broke into laughter. “I wondered: Am I embarrassing myself here? I didn’t know that you are supposed to control your diet before a competition.” In the changing room before the show, Alaskadi was shocked by the condition of the competitors. “I had never seen veins popping out like that. I didn’t know how it was possible.” He failed to place at all and returned to Cameroon determined to do better.
A year later he got his chance, when he was invited back to England for Mr. Universe. This time, he also entered a second competition, the World Amateur Body Building Association championship in Germany. The two competitions were a week apart, and all he needed to do now was raise enough money for flights and hotels.
The civil war in Chad had finally come to an end, and Libya was on a charm offensive to build good relations with the new president. Alaskadi had heard that Libya was offering Chadian athletes sponsorship opportunities to travel abroad, which, given his meager salary, was exactly what he needed. At the Libyan consulate he was met with an encouraging response, but he was told that his application would need to be approved by the Chadian authorities in N’Djamena. He waited but heard nothing more about his request. Instead, he turned to friends to raise the money.
At the Mr. Universe competition in England, Alaskadi placed a very respectable eighth. After the show, a fellow competitor suggested that he visit Muscleworks, a gym in London where the owner, Sav Kyriacou , a Londoner of Greek heritage, might let him train before he traveled to Germany.
At Muscleworks, posters of famous bodybuilders who had trained there covered the walls. Behind the reception desk were rows of colorful supplement tubs — something Alaskadi had never had access to. On the training floor, colossal figures in shorts and hoodies emitted grunts and yells, interspersed with the familiar sound of clanking metal.
“He was very quiet and polite,” recalls Kyriacou. “He showed us a picture of his gym in Africa — it was like prehistoric times! Mr. Universe was a good competition to be part of, so I told him: no problem, you can train for free.”
Later that day, Alaskadi winced and groaned as his legs forced the 300-kilogram (more than 600 pounds) weight up the gleaming steel slider of the leg press. He was surrounded by other bodybuilders, and as he rested one of them approached and asked him how much “gear” he used. This was training talk for steroids. Alaskadi told him he had never used steroids. Everyone within earshot laughed cynically. When Alaskadi suggested that perhaps he would take some before his competition in Germany, they keeled over in hysterics. Alaskadi felt humiliated. Through the laughter, Kyriacou came to his defense: “So he obviously doesn’t use gear if he thinks it can work that quickly, and yet he’s still as big as all of you!”
Two days later, with Alaskadi training hard, the phone at the Muscleworks reception desk rang. Alaskadi heard Kyriacou struggling to understand. “She’s talking French,” he said. It was a friend of Paul Pere’s, desperately searching for Alaskadi. “I have a telegram for you, Gilbert,” said the voice when Alaskadi came to the phone. “It’s from Mr. Pere. Is there a fax machine there? I am afraid it’s bad news.”
The fax machine in Kyriacou’s office clicked and whirred as the page emerged. Alaskadi’s eyes scanned the paper and his heart leapt and sank all at once.
“You cannot come back,” were the first words he read. “The Chadian authorities came to the house looking for you, Gilbert. If you return they will arrest you.”
Alaskadi sunk into the desk chair, his head in his hands. After the war in Chad had ended, he assumed he would no longer have to worry about what had happened 10 years earlier, when he escaped the cell in Moundou. But he was wrong. The application for financial assistance that he filled out at the Libyan consulate, which included all of his contact details, must have alerted Chadian authorities to his whereabouts.
“I just sat in silence,” says Alaskadi. “I was overseas, I didn’t know anybody, and all I had was a small bag and my briefcase. Everything was in Cameroon. I was devastated. All I could think was: What am I going to do? I knew there was no way back.”
At first, Alaskadi slept at Heathrow Airport, rotating between terminals each night and returning to Muscleworks during the day.
“When I found out he didn’t have anywhere to stay,” says Kyriacou, “I asked one of the guys at the gym if they could put him up.” Another bodybuilder let Alaskadi sleep on his floor. Realizing that Alaskadi didn’t have many clothes, Kyriacou organized a collection. “Everyone gathered their clothes that were out of fashion and gave them to him,” he recalls.
Alaskadi’s first paid job in this new chapter of his life was washing pots in a restaurant, but after being granted asylum in the U.K. he began working security for nightclubs and hotels. After more than a year without a permanent address, he secured a small apartment and began to settle into life in London.
Competing at the highest level of bodybuilding is excruciatingly difficult. It requires dedication, sacrifice, discipline and, most important, timing. Bodybuilders push their muscles to their physical limits for years. Steroid use is standard practice — often resulting in side effects such as high blood pressure, depression and impotency. They eat as much protein-rich food as they can, feeding their muscles, and in the process gaining undesirable fat. Three months before a competition, the bodybuilder switches from muscle gain (“bulking”) to fat loss (“cutting”). This is the start of the stage preparation process, and it must be timed to the day.
With a week to go, the bodybuilder slashes their carbohydrate intake by half, starving the muscles of energy. With three days to go, they suddenly reverse their diet and flood their system with carbs and fluids. A day later, they cut out all salt, helping the muscles to draw in the excess nutrients. “You can literally sit there,” Alaskadi says, “and watch your muscles grow.”
The night before the show, pumped up like a balloon, the bodybuilder stops fluid intake, to dehydrate and improve muscle definition. With one hour to go, they stuff their face with sugary foods to spike their blood-sugar level, expanding their veins and making them appear fully “shredded” — bodybuilder talk for vein-popping muscular definition.
For five years, Alaskadi absorbed every nugget of wisdom offered by the bodybuilders at Muscleworks, including Sav Kyriacou, who became a close friend. He learned new methods of training and diet control, how to use supplements and steroids to push his body to its limits, and how to prepare for a competition months in advance. He was bigger, stronger and leaner than ever. His daily diet now consisted of 30 egg whites, two pounds of beef, four chicken breasts, two protein shakes, a large sweet potato, two bananas, two oranges, and tuna fish steaks mixed with Coca-Cola because he hates the taste of tuna.
Alaskadi was competing on a regular basis, and doing well. But when it came to key events like the British championship, he struggled to get his timing right. He would arrive for competition day slightly underweight or overweight, or simply not shredded enough.
As Alaskadi pushed for success in U.K. bodybuilding, Chad descended into another bloody civil war. Nayo, who had returned to N’Djamena after her studies in Cameroon, fled her home for a second time. She headed to France, where she hoped to settle and find work. After a treacherous monthlong journey by land and sea, she arrived in Paris. There, she was unable to find a job, so she pushed on to England, smuggled in the back of a truck alongside other unfamiliar refugees. In London, she found an asylum lawyer who mentioned that he had another Chadian client. “He suggested we meet in his office,” Nayo says.
When Alaskadi walked through the door to his lawyer’s office, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Sitting across the room was the woman he had spent so long dreaming about. Nayo agreed to go out to dinner with Alaskadi, and the pair quickly became an item. A year later, in the summer of 2000, they married. “For us it was real destiny,” Nayo says.
In 2003, after taking a year off due to a slipped disk in his back, Alaskadi managed only seventh at the British Championship. As 2004 rolled around, however, he qualified for the British Championship again and, as he made his way to London’s Wembley Arena one Sunday in October, he was feeling confident. “I timed everything right,” he says. Alaskadi knew this was his moment.
Alaskadi walked on stage for his solo routine, his bright red trunks popping against the blue curtain behind him. As he flawlessly executed his poses, his gleaming muscles flexed and bulged with intensity. Nayo, who was in the audience, says she had “never seen him pose so confidently.” He ended with a proud double bicep curl and a wide grin across his face. “Gilbert Alaskadi, a gentleman of the sport!” announced the commentator, as Alaskadi left the stage.
The judges began to call out fifth, fourth and third place. “My heart was beating,” Alaskadi recalls. “Boom, boom, boom. I was just thinking who’s it going to be?” The announcer skipped second place and excitedly pronounced: “The British Champion for 2004 is …”
“As soon as they said my name,” says Alaskadi, “Oh my God! It was the first time I dropped tears. I thought: I’ve done it.” Nayo was on her feet, cheering for her husband.
At the age of 44, Alaskadi had finally won a major title. He had proven to the world that he could overcome all of the challenges life had thrown at him and still come out on top. He felt truly invincible.
A few weeks later, still basking in the glory of his win, Alaskadi left the gym for an appointment with a knee specialist. He had suffered from arthritis in his knees for most of his adult life, but recently his left knee had been particularly painful. He squeezed a quick training session in beforehand, because, although his knee was uncomfortable, he was following a strict training schedule for the upcoming European and World Championships. A good result in those competitions would get him a “pro card” and a potentially lucrative sponsorship. That morning he leg-pressed 500 kilograms — more than 1,000 pounds.
The doctor lifted the X-ray onto the display box and flipped the switch beside it. The light flickered, illuminating the image of the bones in Alaskadi’s left knee. The problem was obvious. The cartilage in the upper part of his knee had worn down so far that the bones were almost touching.
“The knee will need to be replaced,” the doctor said, matter-of-factly. Alaskadi sat in silence, terrified of what this would mean for his bodybuilding career. A nurse arrived with a wheelchair to take him to be measured for a metal brace. Alaskadi stood up.
“No!” shouted the nurse. “You can’t walk!”
“I walked here, didn’t I?” Alaskadi responded indignantly. When she showed Alaskadi the restrictive brace that would keep his leg straight and the weight off his knee, he refused to let it be put on. “How am I going to train?” he protested.
Shaken, but defiant, Alaskadi continued his competition preparations, and in November of 2005 he finished fifth at the European Championships and 12th at the World Championships, a solid performance by any measure. Alaskadi says he thought “the doctors had it wrong. They told me I couldn’t walk, and yet I was doing fine. I told myself anything is possible.”
Eventually, however, the pain became too much, and Alaskadi was forced to have the surgery. The doctors promised him that he would be able to train again once he recovered, but this turned out to be untrue. For 18 months after the surgery, Alaskadi suffered crippling pain in his knee. He found a surgeon who explained that more of his knee bone should have been removed, and Alaskadi had the knee re-replaced. A motorcycle accident soon after that sealed his fate: He fractured his other knee, requiring it to also be replaced, and dislocated his shoulder. The surgery to repair his shoulder was unsuccessful, due to the size of the muscles surrounding the joints, which impaired the surgeon’s access.
“I thought I was invincible,” Alaskadi laments.
He has not competed since.
Today, Alaskadi runs a personal training gym in the Islington section of north London and has coached a number of recent bodybuilding champions. He lives in an apartment nearby with Nayo, who works as a hospital nurse. Despite Nayo’s protests, he often spends 16 hours a day, six days a week, training clients — it was seven days a week before she convinced him to take Sundays off. After mass, they now share Sunday lunch or a visit with friends.
In 2016, the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, was convicted of crimes against humanity, for the murder of 40,000 and torture of 200,000 people who had been detained by Habré’s government between 1982 and 1990. Had Alaskadi not escaped, he likely would have been one of them. Habré’s conviction, along with the fact that Alaskadi was now a British citizen, meant that it would finally be safe for him to return to his homeland.
In July 2017, Alaskadi stepped off an Air France flight from Paris to N’Djamena and onto Chadian soil for the first time in 33 years. He met family members who were too young to have known him, embraced those he had been apart from for so long, and mourned the many who had since passed. His mother had died a decade earlier, followed by his uncle in 2015. When he saw his sister, now in her late 40s, he remarked how much she reminded him of their mom. “When I left, she was just a little girl,” he said. At his uncle’s compound, Alaskadi broke down in tears as he embraced his aunt. “Oh Gilbert,” his aunt cried, “you lost everyone.”
Later, the family posed for a photo, filled with smiling faces, most of them unaware of how much Alaskadi had lost to the deep red soil beneath their feet. “This was all marshland,” he said, pointing to the land in and around the compound. “I filled it all in. I was his slave.”
Since that trip, Alaskadi’s health has continued to decline. He has now had both knees replaced twice, and the doctors have said that next time, it will be his entire leg that needs to be removed. Most recently, he was hospitalized for major back surgery, a result of the slipped disk from more than a decade earlier. Within a week of each operation, he returned to work. In recent months, his kidneys have faltered and he now receives dialysis three times a week. He moves slowly and deliberately, relying on a crutch in places where there is nothing to lean on.
While some will see Alaskadi’s health problems as the inevitable result of bodybuilding (steroid use has been linked to kidney damage, for example) he believes otherwise. He says that arthritis and high blood pressure run in his family, and he maintains that his kidney issues are the result of 13 years of pain medication for his knees and the powerful epidural used during his recent back surgery.
Kyriacou says that, were it not for his health problems, Alaskadi would still be competing at the highest level. “He has a brilliant physique, and he never smoked or drank or anything like that. But he had a constant struggle.” The two remain friends, and Kyriacou describes Alaskadi as one of a kind: “It’s very hard to find people like him these days, with a genuine, trustworthy character. He could have been a clergyman.”
Despite all of this, Alaskadi hasn’t lost hope of competing again one day. “They told me I can’t train anymore, but there are guys older than me who are doing well, [so] why can’t that be me?” he insists. “Part of me still believes I am invincible, even now.”
At his gym, Oxygen Fitness Universe, Alaskadi leans on the frame of a bench press, above a man who huffs and puffs as he heaves the bar skyward. “Six!” Alaskadi counts enthusiastically. “Just four more! Come on!” On the wall beside them, among the magazine pullouts and images of Alaskadi from his competition days, a poster reads: Obsession is the name lazy people give to dedication.
Even as his health fails, and even though he is unlikely to ever compete again, Alaskadi clings tight to the belief that has guided him through his life: There is nothing he cannot overcome.
“If I stop,” Alaskadi says, “then it means I am dead.”