BELMEKEN, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Raw talent, tough-minded ambition and an attractive personality have made wrestler Stanka Zlateva a hot property at a time when sport in Bulgaria desperately needs new heroes.
Wrestling is hugely popular in Bulgaria, where it has been practiced since ancient times. Women’s wrestling, though, is relatively new and will be on the Olympic program for only the second time in Beijing.
“Our sport...is very young and has yet to win fans around the world,” twice world champion Zlateva told Reuters. “Women’s wrestling is very attractive and I have no doubt that soon many people will turn their attention to it.”
Bulgaria is looking to Zlateva, who won her third European title last month, to help restore its reputation at the Olympics.
The Balkan country finished third in the medals table at the boycott-hit 1980 Moscow Olympics but lost ground after the fall of communism in 1989 and won only two gold medals in Athens four years ago, neither of them in wrestling -- a sport which has given Bulgaria 16 Olympic and 52 world titles.
Men’s wrestling was a feature of the ancient Olympics and has been on the program since the first modern Games in 1896. Wrestler Nikola Stanchev became Bulgaria’s first Olympic champion when he won gold at the Melbourne Games in 1956.
Zlateva’s coach Simeon Shterev knows that his charge, Bulgaria’s athlete of the year in 2007, will be under pressure from the media and sports officials at home when she competes in Beijing in August.
“She has the winning instinct, she has the ambition too but I want her to become aware that the Olympic Games are something very special,” Shterev, himself a former world and European champion, said.
Zlateva, 25, switched to freestyle wrestling from pentathlon eight years ago.
“I didn’t need much time to switch over to wrestling,” she said during an Olympic training camp. “I wanted to try and it was intriguing.”
Zlateva dominates her 72-kg category and her wide range of technical skills make her a tough opponent.
She fired a strong warning to her rivals in Beijing by winning the gold medal at the European championships in Tampere in April without conceding a single technical point during the competition.
Fellow wrestlers at the training camp sang her praises. ”I really enjoy watching Stanka in action,“ said seven-times African champion Hassan Medany of Egypt. ”She doesn’t rely only on her sheer power, she uses her brain and heart during the bout.
“She is the best in the world. Female wrestling is developing very fast and athletes like Stanka will help its boom. Her matches will attract a large TV audience, that’s for sure.”
Zlateva has been adding more clutches and locks to her favorite finishing move known as “The Mill” and wrestling experts predict that she win her first Olympic title in Beijing.
“I know that every competitor dreams of stepping on the Olympic mat and most of them dream of finishing on the podium,” said Zlateva. “But I‘m not afraid of the competition. On the contrary, it motivates me to work even harder.”
She hopes, too, to spark new interest in women’s wrestling, which made its Olympic debut in Athens four years ago.
“We see that elite female athletes in sports like tennis and athletics are enjoying enormous popularity and win millions in advertising campaigns,” said Zlateva, adding that the standard was now high in women’s wrestling.
Shterev coaches men as well but says he prefers to watch women’s wrestling.
”It’s much more attractive,“ he said. ”I can easily predict a bright future for female wrestling.
”I know that females in wrestling are not the highest earners but it’s one of the fastest-growing sports worldwide and the investments will increase very soon.
”You only have to look at the big countries to realize that some of the leading names in our sport turned to women wrestling.
“I believe that girls in wrestling have the credentials and I‘m sure that people will look at them completely differently in years to come,” said Shterev.
Editing by Clare Fallon