Weightlifting, and the many turns of fate

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, three Bulgarian weightlifters failed doping tests. The rules said the entire Bulgarian team was thereupon supposed to be expelled. However, Galabin Boevski had already competed and, because he did not test positive, he was allowed to keep his gold medal. In 2004, Boevski was found liable of tampering with the urine sample he provided at the 2003 world championship in Vancouver. He would be banned from competition for eight years.

In October, 2011, Boevski was arrested at the airport at Sao Paolo, Brazil, while trying to board a plane to Spain. The authorities found nine kilos, or nearly 20 pounds, of cocaine, in his bags.

The cover of a new book that delves deeply into the culture of Bulgarian weightlifting

Galabin Boevski is a complicated figure and weightlifting is a complex sport, filled with intrigue and drama. On the stage, the bar does not lie. You either lift it or not. Behind the scenes, however, as a new book, The White Prisoner: Galabin Boevski’s Secret Story, makes plain, it can be an enormous struggle not just to become Olympic champion but to stay on top.

The book, written by Ognian Georgiev, sports editor at the “Bulgaria Today” daily newspaper, available Friday, offers a revealing look into a sports culture that demands further — and intense — examination.

Bulgaria has long had outsized influence in weightlifting.

Bulgaria has close connections with the unraveling doping story in Azerbaijan, where more than a dozen lifters tested positive in 2013 for illicit performance-enhancing drugs.

Indeed, the coach of the 2013 Azeri team, Bulgaria’s Zlatan Vanev, is a three-time world and four-time European champion.

Among the Azeri athletes suspended last year by the International Weightlifting Federation: Bulgarian-born Valentin Hristov, 19, the 2012 London bronze medalist in the bantamweight class.

Remarkably, Bulgaria was a weightlifting force even in the years after the break-up of the former Soviet bloc system.

As the book makes plain, for everyone everywhere in the system — athletes, coaches, sponsors — manipulation is the name of the game.

It is said that the "wily" Bulgarian coach, Ivan Abadzhiev, the famed "Senior Trainer," goes to "slaughterhouses to collect oxen testicles, so his weightlifters could get stronger."

Athletes can be “sold” to other countries.

In 1999, the year before the Sydney Games, the world championships in Athens are of course themselves a major event but will also set the Olympic quotas. In Bulgaria, there are far more athletes than there are spots, according to the book.

What to do?

Opportunity suddenly beckons. Abadzhiev, acting through the track and field mediator, Yanko Bratoev, decides to send lifters to Qatar: “The plan is clever because the motivation of his team stays high.”

The details: “The Bulgarian federation receives $40,000 a year from those transfers. The salaries of the new Qatari athletes are $800. The weightlifters keep $500. The rest go to the federation, according to the contract. Apart from that, Bulgaria receives 50 percent of the bonuses of the athletes, promised to them for success in major competitions.”

In Qatar, the coach will be Abadzhiev’s assistant, Zlatin Ivanov. The Qataris quickly issue new names and passports to the Bulgarians, among them Peter Tanev, the European middleweight champion; heavyweight Angel Popov; and super-heavyweight Yani Marchokov.

In Sydney, it all proves convoluted.

From the book, and now oxen testicles seem, well, quaint:

"The cup with pills is getting fuller. Every weightlifter has a personal one. Drugs, vitamins and amino acids are taken to a schedule. The Senior Trainer and his assistants keep close watch to see that everyone is taking their medication. A war would break out if someone threw away a vitamin C pill. Abadzhiev is strict. He wants every rule he gives to be abided by. The coach is most rigorous about medication. He keeps adding more and more to the pill cups. One of them is Orocetam -- a metabolic booster."

Orocetam is a medication made by a company called Sopharma. Orocetam is designed to help brain rehabilitation during and after illness; it improves blood flow in the brain; that can enhance mental concentration.

It turns out that, as the company acknowledges, Orocetam contains traces of the banned diuretic furosemide.

The company says it regrets the disqualifications -- to show you how important weightlifters are in Bulgaria, Boevski was the country's landslide winner of Athlete of the Year for 1999, when he dominated his category at the world championships. But it also says it should not be blamed for tiny amounts of furosemide in the drug, which it points out -- accurately -- is not designed for use by athletes.

It is also pointed out by the Bulgarian pharmaceutical trade agency that manufacturers are not required to list a component that makes up less than 0.1 percent of a drug. Here, the trace amount of furosemide is 0.003 percent or less.

At the Olympics, a trace is more than enough.

Boevski and Abadzhiev had long gone their separate ways in terms of training methods. Perhaps this is why Boevski's sample is clean.  

Some of the Bulgarians, like Boevski, get to compete. Some don’t.

The team is suspended. Then there is an appeal, led by the then-president of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee, Ivan Slavkov, known to his peers and colleagues as "Bateto," or the "elder brother." Slavkov had been president of the BOC since 1982. In 2005 he would be expelled on corruption charges from his membership in the International Olympic Committee; he would then be replaced as BOC president as well.

An Olympics runs for 17 days. Time is ticking.

In the heavyweight division, Alan Tsagaev, born in Russia but competing for Bulgaria, is finally cleared to compete — on the day of competition itself, and then only after the Court of Arbitration for Sport signs off on it all, saying there is no legal basis to disqualify the entire team.

He wins silver.

Popov, now Said Saif Asaad, takes bronze. He is the only one of the eight Bulgarians turned Qataris to win a medal in Sydney.

Always, as the book — and as the historical record — makes plain, in weightlifting the specter of illicit performance-enhancing drugs is about.

Three Bulgarian lifters will be banned for doping before the Athens 2004 Games.

The entire Bulgarian team will withdraw from the 2008 Beijing Games after 11 of its athletes test positive for a steroid.

Because of the scandal at the 2000 Games, one of the Bulgarian lifters, Georgi Gardev, who surely would have been a top contender for gold in his class, is precluded from taking the stage. He can do nothing while Greece’s Pyrros Dimas becomes Olympic champion for the third time, with a weight that was 10 kilograms, about 22 pounds, less than Gardev had lifted two weeks before in practice.

Gardev is perhaps one of the two unsung heroes of Galabin Boevski’s layered tale.

There is Boevski’s wife, Krasimira. She is by his side when he wins. Too, she is there for him through his many trials.

And there is Gardev — who after being denied the chance to become Olympic champion will go on, among other things, to become Italy’s coach, directing several championships. A few months ago, he opened a bakery back in his home town, Pazadzik, Bulgaria.

On stage, there is a simple truth — a man, a bar, his will, the weights. The rest of the time?

In Sydney, Gardev can only watch. At this, Gardev turns to Boevski with the line that arguably encapsulates the entire story: “Galab,” he says, using Boevski’s nickname, “look how interesting fate is.”