ASENOVGRAD, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s weightlifters are on a mission to clean up their sport’s tarnished reputation after a series of doping scandals and suspensions at the Olympic Games.
Only the former Soviet Union has won more medals than Bulgaria in weightlifting’s major championships but the Balkan country has also come to represent the sleazy side of the sport.
“I know some people think that Bulgaria has brought darkness to weightlifting but we are ready to prove ourselves as fair sportsmen,” coach Plamen Asparuhov told Reuters during a training camp for August’s Beijing Olympics.
“I believe we have left the doping problem behind us. We have to show the world that we’re capable of competing with the best without the help of banned substances.”
Weightlifting has been the sport worst affected by doping and almost lost its status as an Olympic sport after five doping cases at the 1988 Games.
Asparuhov knows that the lifters will be monitored very strictly in China and says the Beijing Games will be the perfect setting for the Bulgarian team to prove their credentials.
“We need to be successful and clean at the Games,” he said. “That’s the only way to convince the skeptics.”
Bulgaria’s reputation hit a low at the 2000 Games in Sydney, where the team were stripped of three golds and sent home in shame following positive drugs tests.
Drugs grabbed the spotlight again before the 2004 Athens Games with Olympic champion Galabin Boevski banned for eight years for tampering with his urine sample at the world championships in Vancouver the previous year.
Boevski’s team mates Zlatan Vanev and Georgi Markov were given 18-month suspensions in 2004 after the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) said their urine samples had come from one person.
Bulgaria has a controversial history in women’s weightlifting as well.
Izabela Dragneva triumphed as the sport’s first female Olympic champion at the 2000 Games but was stripped of her gold medal following a positive drug test.
Critics say doping is still rife in Bulgarian sport, particularly in weightlifting, raising further concerns before Beijing but officials say they have taken stringent action to prevent any more transgressions.
“Everything is under control,” said Tenyo Tenev, secretary general of Bulgaria’s weightlifting federation. “I don’t see any reason to make any special adjustments.
“Weightlifting’s growing popularity has translated into tougher competition and increased use of performance-enhancing drugs but we have no fears as we know we follow the regulations.
“We have offered our lifters a perfect organization to prepare and we hope they will perform in the best possible way in Beijing,” Tenev said.
A nation of fewer than eight million with an enormous passion for sport, Bulgaria has given the world some of the top names in weightlifting.
Many will remember Naim Suleymanoglu — “The Pocket Hercules” — and triple Olympic champion Halil Mutlu as Turkish athletes but they were born in Bulgaria and began their careers competing for their native land.
In 1988, in a soccer-type deal, Suleymanoglu moved to Turkey on a $1-million transfer. Mutlu moved to Bulgaria’s southeast neighbor for nothing when he was 16.
Oil-rich Qatar reportedly paid $1 million for a stable of nine Bulgarian lifters before the Games in Athens as they built up a team.
“I’ve been following this sport for many decades now and Bulgaria has been always among the best,” said Asparuhov.
Despite losing some ground after the fall of communism in 1989, weightlifting continues to be one of the most respected sports in Bulgaria. Ivan Abadzhiev, the mastermind of the country’s success, was voted coach of last century.
“Weightlifting has been growing rapidly worldwide,” added Asparuhov. “Skilled weightlifters are emerging from so many countries nowadays and I can easily predict that the tournament in Beijing could be the most open ever.”
Asparuhov said Bulgaria would be in confident mood in China, even though the team will be without Olympic 94-kg champion Milen Dobrev, who has suffered a knee injury and is not expected to recover in time.
The Bulgarian men won three golds, including two for the 22-year-old Ivan Stoitsov in the 77-kg contest, at last September’s world championships which were dominated by China.
“The encouraging thing is that the world championships in Chiang Mai was such a huge success despite the fact that many were expecting another failure,” Asparuhov said.
Editing by Clare Fallon