A Brighter Future for Bulgarian Sports?

Money isn't everything, don't muscle your way into discos, stick with the people who were with you in hard times, and don't chase rock stars and models.

The lifestyle of a politician? The principles of a humble intellectual or a lowly public servant? No. It's the credo of Detelin Dalakliev of Bulgaria, a new world champion in boxing.

An astonishingly pacific figure for a boxer, Dalakliev, 26, came by success the hard way. He grew up modestly in the northern city of Pleven, allowing himself neither Nike sneakers nor designer jeans. He went to Sofia with 7 leva (3.50 euros) in his pocket to train in boxing and became an amateur world champion in the bantamweight category in Milan on 12 September, all the while suffering from a double discal hernia. Of his longtime girlfriend, this underdog champion says, "She was with me when times were hard, so I'm happy to marry her. I'll do this when I collect some money."

We might expect something different from the first really big boxing title holder from Bulgaria in 14 years. Communism helped to bring world fame for Bulgarian boxers, with at least one champion in every Olympics. But during the transition, power sports became associated with rude guys with shadowy connections who dated nipped, tucked, and peroxided fans. Against this backdrop, Dalakliev's star shines much brighter.

But he's not the only unlikely sports hero from Bulgaria these days. The national men's volleyball team took the bronze medal at the European Championship in Istanbul in September after defeating Italy, Serbia, and Russia. Its members play for the best clubs in Europe. This despite the fact that they represent a country whose capital of nearly 2 million people does not have even one volleyball arena. The national team plays in the coastal city of Varna.

Under-financing, neglect, underworld links, a lack of facilities, foreign transfers, and bright exceptions: these are the characteristics of Bulgarian sports during the transition, embodied in the stories of Dalakliev and the national volleyball team. In the darkness, there are glimmers of hope.


Before 1989 it was simple. The state invested extravagantly in sports in order to show its supremacy over the rotten capitalist system. These investments were intended not to boost participatory sports but to yield medals. And Bulgaria won a lot – in wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, rhythmic gymnastics, shooting, rowing, and athletics. This was a chance for sportsmen and women to taste national fame and the forbidden fruit of traveling west.

For the public, it was a moment of glory when the national anthem awoke national pride – and, oh yes, athletes were allowed to beat even the Soviets. Those who did, notably rhythmic gymnast Neshka Robeva and weightlifter Ivan Abadjiev, became public intellectuals, wrapped in popular legends about firmness of principle and tenacity of will. TV viewers could forget for one moment the humiliations of daily life under socialism: why worry about bananas, when banners are flying high?

But there were humiliations in so-called socialist sports as well, particularly the scandals over using banned substances. TV viewers' patriotism turned to a preoccupation with nasty jokes about sportswomen who turned out to be men. But conspiracy theories were always at the ready to help us explain away such things, so the feelings of the audience were left almost intact. Bulgaria celebrated its champions; people became instant specialists in sports trivia and medal-tracking, and at the Olympics any finish below eighth place was deemed highly disappointing. The transition changed that: state money dried up and market principles took over. Many more athletes were allowed to seek success in the West: the more profitable the sport, the greater the success. Football players benefited most, stars in volleyball and tennis followed suit. The triumph of the national football team in the 1994 World Cup, when it took fourth place with wins over Argentina and Germany, was the culmination. This exceptional soccer generation combined the benefits of two systems. Stars like Hristo Stoichkov and Yordan Lechkov were nurtured under socialism but later flourished in teams like Barcelona and Hamburg. Yet time marched on and Bulgarian sports had to find its own free-market face.

In the beginning it was not a pretty one. The heroes of yesterday became the villains of today. The great Bulgarian wrestling school turned into a highly organized mafia network of "inglourious basterds," with wrestler being a synonym for mobster. The communists' lack of emphasis on mass sports evolved into total neglect: stadiums crumbled, training groups dissolved, sports halls stood deserted. Nobody bothered to build swimming pools for children – they became an amenity of palatial hotels instead. Sports stars from past and present eagerly joined the wrestlers in murky deals and borderline-legal endeavors.


But this time has partly passed into history, too. The Bulgarian language has a different word for mobster now: old wrestlers have either reformed or gotten themselves shot. A new appetite for success has emerged, together with the ambition of the new middle class who want their children to stay closer to the stadium and farther from McDonald's (MCD). But Bulgaria rarely does well in any Olympics anymore. Beijing marked a record low – only one gold (Rumyana Neykova in rowing), one silver, and three bronze medals. Schools find it difficult to organize their pupils into athletics. "We're the biggest school in Bulgaria, with 2,000 students, but we have just one gymnasium where three classes gather to do gymnastics," says Galin Ganchev, principal of the Vassil Levski school in the northeastern city of Ruse. "It's so small, you can hardly breathe."

A focus is lacking, the experts say. Everyone is simply asking for more state money and fundamental questions are not addressed. Which sport should be a national priority for shaping Olympic champions? What should be done to stimulate mass sports culture? And where should one begin – with finance, management, mentality?

Before 1989 it was widely believed that Bulgarians flourished in individual sports and lagged behind in team sports, due to some irrational lack of organization and team spirit in our national psyche. The market proved that wrong. Individuals and teams either triumphed or flopped. Weightlifters did worse, but an unusually talented generation of tennis players appeared. Footballers mostly lose, but volleyballers do better and better. Pretty girls in rhythmic gymnastics are less successful, but smart men and women in chess have excelled: at one point Bulgaria held all three world chess championship titles – for men, women, and veterans. Hotheaded Stoichkov went out of fashion, supplanted by the smoother Dimitar Berbatov, with his record-setting transfer, for a Bulgarian, to Manchester United and his unlikely hobby of drawing. He could easily symbolize the new, brighter future of Bulgarian sports.

In other words, management should come first, then money – and only then, decide what our sports culture will be about if it is no longer to be a political tool or the realm of gangsters.

The weekly Capital magazine dedicated an issue to the management of the national volleyball team as an example of how things could work, even in Bulgaria. You just need experts who can scout the able kids, professionals who play abroad, honest and imaginative leadership, accountable and transparent management, and a foreign coach. With a mix of homegrown talent and the clever use of globalization, Bulgaria could do better in fields much different from volleyball, even from sports.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov should know this. The former karate champion and current amateur footballer has experience both in professional and amateur sports. His daily schedule includes playing football or tennis, and on Sundays watching a match. He appointed Svilen Neykov, gold medalist Rumyana's husband and coach, minister for youth and sports, a post that did not exist in the previous government. But to have an engaged premier is not enough.

Bulgarian sports managers should have the courage to break with the old ways – both from communism and the time of transition. Excessive state support and total neglect can be equally devastating, history shows. On the other hand, using illegal drugs and associating with the mafia transforms a source of national pride into a source of shame and fear.

It would help if managers looked at sports through the eyes of Detelin Dalakliev, Bulgaria's humble boxing champion: organized properly, sports could be an excellent tool to empower the underdog and a decent way to promote the able.

Such an approach could yield gold – maybe less than before 1989, but solid and well-earned.

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