Sofia (AFP) – “Up! Up! Up!” — the exhausted cries of athletes thrusting heavy bars into the air echo through Bulgaria’s national weightlifting centre in the capital, Sofia.
But no matter how hard they train, the men and women here cannot push away the painful truth that Bulgaria’s reputation in the sport lies in tatters.
Once hailed as indomitable heroes, Bulgarian weightlifters are now buckling under the burden of one too many doping offences. The national sport has been deprived of all funding and clubs cannot afford even shoes.
The ex-communist country — which has produced 36 Olympic weightlifting medallists — is reeling from seeing all its lifters excluded from the Rio Olympics in August after 11 athletes tested positive for the banned drug stanozolol in March.
The anabolic steroid, used to add muscle bulk and enhance strength and performance, has cast a shadow over international sport — especially weightlifting — for half a century. Bulgaria has had one of the worst records.
The March episode was the latest in a string of doping scandals in recent years.
As professionals trade barbs over who’s to blame, reverence has given way to mockery.
“Bulgaria’s doping team was caught weightlifting,” sports commentators quipped following the latest scandal.
But the joke does not make everyone laugh.
“Everything just ended,” lamented Diyan Minchev, remembering the crushing moment when he and his team were banned for between nine and 18 months in the stanozolol affair.
“We trained for years and then it all crumbled.”
Minchev and his colleagues feel hard done by. They say they had no way of knowing their herbal supplement contained traces of the illegal substance.
The national coach, Ivan Ivanov admitted the pills were not checked. People close to sports circles say the underfunding means it does not have proper testing facilities.
Sabotage, not malice, was to blame, insisted Ivanov, an Olympic gold winner and four-time world champion who was stripped of a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Games for doping.
He was one of three Bulgarian medal winners, one gold, who failed tests at Sydney. The whole team was sent home.
“Someone tainted the product to ruin us,” he told AFP about the stanozolol affair, adding defensively: “We will keep fighting.”
– Treated like ‘a traitor’ –
But it’s an uphill battle as the state cut all funding for the Bulgarian weightlifting federation in the stanozolol aftermath.
The move has hit clubs across the country, pushing some to the brink of financial ruin.
In a gym in Asenovgrad, 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Sofia, coach Lachezar Kishkilov said he has not been paid for six months.
There’s no cash to cover even the most basic necessities for his team of young weightlifters — from vitamins and shoes to travel expenses for competitions.
“If the bottom of the pyramid is crushed, how do they expect results from the top?” the 54-year-old said.
“It’s sheer magic that we can still produce champions.”
Behind Kishkilov, trophies gather dust on a shelf while the walls feature black-and-white photographs of past sporting heroes.
The end of the communist regime left many Bulgarian athletes without future prospects, even pushing some into organised crime to make ends meet.
Kishkilov’s own successful coaching career was crushed in 2008 when another doping scandal, ahead of the Beijing Games, saw 11 Bulgarian lifters fail tests. The country’s weightlifting federation temporarily lost its licence and withdrew the entire team from the Olympics.
He eventually took a coaching job in Azerbaijan, bringing his best lifter, Boyanka Kostova, with him.
The 23-year-old nabbed the world title for Azerbaijan in the women’s 58kg class last year.
Kishkilov, who has since moved home again, says the Bulgarian weightlifting federation now treats him like “a traitor”.
– ‘Total neglect’ –
Kishkilov said the federation’s “total neglect” of the sport — including failing to ensure appropriate testing of supplements — has caused the recent doping scandals.
Supplements are a necessity because the body cannot recover without vitamins and minerals and “the pressure is too big”, he said.
“But the error is that medication bought from certain producers is not tested. Sometimes it can contain banned substances,” Kishkilov added.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however: while Bulgaria will miss the Rio Games, most of the national team are now allowed back in competition.
Three, including 15-year-old Nadezhda-Mey Nguen, are at the European Championships being held in Norway until Saturday.
She was the youngest national team member to have been banned over the stanozolol controversy.
“There are hard times in every sport, just like in life. I managed to fight through it somehow,” she told AFP in between lifts at a recent training session.
Asked what keeps her going, she paused for a moment then snapped: “Will!”