Fighting to keep Bulgaria’s wrestling heritage alive

In the impoverished Kardzhali region, a small club is training youngsters and trying to bring back the glory days.

bulgaria wrestling
Wrestling is the only sport 11-year-old Elis has ever done and she says she loves it [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Kardzhali, Bulgaria Atalay Syuleyman started crying when he saw a wrestling mat spread out in front of him.

A former wrestler, he hadn’t seen one for years. He had recently returned to Bulgaria after working abroad for almost 25 years and had just agreed to start training children in a newly opened wrestling club in the southern city of Kardzhali.

Bulgaria has a decades-long wrestling tradition, but in recent years, success on the global arena has witnessed a slump. Wrestling, like other sports in the country, suffered from lack of funding and a brain-drain of coaches and training specialists.

“[Before 1989] we had world champions, European champions and wrestlers who participated in Olympic Games,” Syuleyman, whose father was also a wrestler and a national champion, told Al Jazeera. “Our city was famous for its wrestlers.”

After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, added Syuleyman, wrestling in the Kardzhali region stagnated and disappeared.

Wanting to resurrect this sport in the region, Syuleyman started working as a coach at a small club in the city before opening his own club. With limited funding, he managed to rent the basement of the mayor’s office in Opalchensko – a village of 900 near Kardzhali – for 32 leva ($18) per month.

Dozens of children from the nearby villages and the city signed up. In just a year, against all odds, the club Kardzhali – as Syuleyman called it – had its first national champion: 13-year-old Melih who won gold in the 59kg category.

Coach Atalay Syuleyman says discipline is one of his priorities when he coaches [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]
Coach Atalay Syuleyman says discipline is one of his priorities when he coaches [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

“In wrestling, you need brains and strength,” said Melih, who had to beat four other wrestlers to land the gold medal. “It’s a difficult sport but I love it.”

Despite the success of his young wrestlers, Syuleyman has been unable to secure a sponsor. The club has been prospering based solely on his efforts and the enthusiasm of the children and parents.

Elis is a petite and shy 11-year-old girl from Opalchensko. She weighs around 30kg but flips and bends like an acrobat and wrestles with older boys.

When the first group of boys started training with Syuleyman last summer, Elis would come to the basement window and watch them for hours.

The coach eventually signed her up and she’s been attending practise daily ever since. Her friend and wrestling partner dropped out, but she stood firm.

“I tell them a girl can wrestle but [my friends] think it’s strange,” Elis said.

Another girl, 10-year-old Tugce, is a medal winner but can’t come for regular training sessions as her parents can’t afford the taxi fare to the club.

Syuleyman does not charge for the coaching. Kardzhali is one of the most impoverished regions in Bulgaria and has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. In recent years, some of its residents have moved to the capital or left the country looking for jobs.

Youth sports club 'Kardzhali' opened up in the basement of the mayor's office in the small village of Opalchensko [Al Jazeera]
Youth sports club ‘Kardzhali’ opened up in the basement of the mayor’s office in the small village of Opalchensko [Al Jazeera]

Kardzhali is also home to a big part of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. Most of the children who train with Syuleyman are ethnic Turks, but some are also Pomaks (Bulgarian-speaking Muslims), Roma, and ethnic Bulgarians.

“For me, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity the children are,” added Syuleyman who wants the children to train with enthusiasm and discipline.

“I have conditions. First, it’s good health, then school and finally wresting. If you don’t have the first two, you can’t develop the third. None of them were great students when they came to me. Now they’re all A-grade students.

“The idea is [for the children] to be away from cigarettes, alcohol and other bad habits like taking drugs or stealing.”

It is that spirit of discipline and sportsmanship that makes some parents support the club.

Nedim Mustafa has been one of its most enthusiastic supporters. He enrolled his 14-year-old son Barash after the karate and football clubs which he was attending in the city closed down.

Mustafa often goes to wrestling tournaments with the children, assisting with transportation and other costs. He also helps Syuleyman organise small tournaments in neighbouring villages.

Finding sponsors for these competitions is always a challenge. Support from parents has not been enough to keep the club running. Sometimes Syuleyman struggles to get money to pay for transportation and accommodations when the children need to go to national competitions. 

Out of the four they have attended, only one was paid for by the Kardzhali municipality. 

Syuleyman has had to turn down invitations to go to tournaments in Turkey and Moldova due to a lack of funds. The club has received a donation of training outfits and mats from the Turkish city of Bursa, which is home to many Bulgarian Turks.

'It felt so good when I won the gold medal that I was speechless,' says 13-year-old Melih, the first national champion of club [Al Jazeera]
‘It felt so good when I won the gold medal that I was speechless,’ says 13-year-old Melih, the first national champion of club [Al Jazeera]

The Bulgarian Wrestling Federation does not have funds to assist small clubs like Kardzhali. The federation is facing its own financial struggles with a budget that is decreasing.

“In today’s [tough] economic situation, the state supports the sport as much as it can, but […] we need other sponsors as well so that the success of Bulgarian wrestling continues,” Valentin Yordanov, the federation’s chairman, told Al Jazeera in a statement.

“When a sports club wins the trust of the community where it was founded, it would be easier for it to seek financial support from the state, the municipality or local entrepreneurs.”

But in the impoverished region of Kardzhali, support from the local authorities and businessmen is hard to come by. Although he hasn’t yet taken any money for his coaching efforts, Syuleyman finds his work more than rewarding.

“The children make me happy. When I enter the training room, I forget about my problems.”

His ambition is to take his wrestlers to the European championships and then the Olympics one day.

Source: Al Jazeera