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.”


Qatar: soccer in 2022, Olympics an inevitability

The 2022 World Cup selection Thursday marks less a rejection of the United States than an affirmation of Qatar even as it underscores just what a challenge it's going to be to convince the International Olympic Committee in the coming years to send the Games back to the United States. There are other places in the world. They deserve their chances, too.

And there's almost no place that's as deserving of its chance as Qatar.

I have been to Doha twice, the first time in 2006 for the Asian Games and then again this past March for track and field's indoor world championships.

The sports facilities already on the ground in Doha are, in every regard, world-class, including the Aspire Dome, where they ran the world indoors. As Seb Coe, the 2012 Summer Games chief, made plain to me when he and I were walking around the facility, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything anywhere better.

With Doha and Qatar, the trick is always just getting people to see for themselves what it's all about -- moving past perceptions and stereotypes and confronting reality, a nation that not only wants to be but eminently deserves to be part of a vibrant 21st century world order.

To me, it was always a foregone conclusion that FIFA would go to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Russia is on the move. Qatar, too.

To its credit -- and sometimes it's hard to assign the byzantine FIFA much credit -- soccer's worldwide governing body has consistently been willing in recent years to make the sorts of leaps of faith that inexorably lead to Thursday's results.

Here's to the hope that the FIFA balloting was actually done fairly and in good faith, and the suspicion that reigns in so many quarters about the 2018 and 2022 process, amplified by the corruption scandal that dogged FIFA in the weeks before the vote, will not in years to come explode into even-grander scandal.

Assuming a credible vote -- and, granted, given everything involving FIFA, that might well be a big assumption -- Russia and Qatar always seemed the choices.

Britain? Um, why?

The United States? Been there, done that. Sure, 1994 was great. But that was then.

China, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Qatar -- those places are now.

The Olympics have already been to China, in 2008. They're going to be in Russia, in Sochi in 2014. They're going to Rio de Janeiro in 2016. South Africa? Someday, and the IOC members are going to see Durban for themselves when they gather there this July for the committee's annual all-delegates assembly.

The World Cup is not the Olympic Games; the scale and scope of the Games is far bigger than one soccer tournament. Even so, it's inevitable that one day the Games will go to Qatar. And Doha will be eminently deserving.

The good news for the Qataris is that they now have 12 years to showcase what they're all about.

They have a great story to tell, and now an audience that's going to be way more inclined to listen. And that's their biggest challenge -- telling their story to almost everyone else in the world, because very few travelers traditionally have been there. Doha is not Florence or Paris or Madrid.

Not yet, anyway.

Once you've been to Doha, you get it, and you get it immediately.

It's not just that the pace of construction there is fantastic. The buildings that are going up -- they're fantastic-looking, too.

The architecture is, in a word, stunning. To stand on the deck of the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and gaze across the bay at the Doha skyline -- it's breathtaking.

And the museum itself -- it's incredible.

Some of the leading universities in the United States have quietly been setting up branch operations in recent years in Doha. Northwestern, where I went to journalism school, now runs full-fledged journalism and communications programs in Doha. Anyone who knows how inherently conservative American universities can be knows how remarkable it is that Northwestern, and others, including Carnegie Mellon, have adopted such forward-looking strategies.

They wouldn't be there unless there was sound reason.

Okay, it's hot in Doha, and more so in the summer. So what? It's hot in Chicago at a Cubs' game in mid-summer, too. Sit in the bleachers at Wrigley Field for four-plus hours on a hot and humid August afternoon and then tell me Chicago doesn't deserve to have a baseball team -- or, for that matter, two -- because it's hot? That's just dumb.

This past March, I was among the first group of international sports journalists to see the cooling technology that's going to be featured prominently at the soccer stadiums in and around Doha in 2022. It cools the stadiums and the seats down to about 78 degrees Fahrenheit.

It works, and it's incredibly cool, literally and figuratively.

The Qataris have money -- they're sitting on an immense deposit of natural gas that might well sustain their economy for this century and beyond -- and, more importantly, the will.

Don't ever doubt that. They have the will.