With the FIFA World Cup in Brazil now just around the corner (unfortunately yet again without Bulgarian participation) and the summer months finally rolling in, it’s a good time to get some sports inspiration from Bulgaria’s surprisingly rich sports history. For a country of its size (and I like to emphasize that often enough), Bulgaria has achieved some remarkable sports achievements.
From the first modern Olympics to world chess domination, kashkaval tourist presents 7 incredible Bulgarian sports achievements.
1. Overlords of chess: Veselin Topalov and Antoaneta Stefanova, 2005-2006
Chess is seen by many as the ultimate mind sport and the title of FIDE World Chess Champion is the most prestigious trophy one can hold in the world of chess. Astonishingly, Bulgarians held both the men’s and women’s world chess titles for about a year, between 2005 and 2006. Bulgarian grandmaster Veselin Topalov won the World Chess Championship a year after fellow chess wizard Antoaneta Stefanova had clinched the women’s title in 2004.
Though both Topalov and Stefanova lost their titles in 2006, they have remained at the top of the game, consistently ranking among the top chess players in the world.
2. Fastest English Channel swim: Petar Stoychev, 2007
Bulgarian swimmer Petar Stoychev is deservedly counted among the legends of long-distance (marathon) swimming. He boasts numerous titles in prestigious extreme long-distance swimming competitions, including the World Cup (of which he’s a seven-time winner) and the Grand Prix.
In 2007, Stoychev became the first person to swim the treacherous waters of the English Channel in less than seven hours. His time of 6 hours and less than 58 minutes set a new record for the fastest English Channel swim. Stoychev’s amazing feat was the record for 5 years, until Australian Trent Grimsey beat his time by about 3 minutes in 2012.
3. The Golden Generation of football: 1994 World Cup
Bulgaria’s epic fourth place finish at the 1994 FIFA World Cup may be one of the most unexpected stories of Bulgarian sports history – and surely the country’s greatest football achievement. Bulgaria, led by Lechkov, Sirakov, Kostadinov and future Ballon d’Or winner Stoichkov, had qualified to the World Cup in incredible circumstances. Bulgaria had to beat France away with a last-minute goal in the last game to take France’s place at the World Cup.
Things started quite badly for Bulgaria in the USA, with a shocking 3-0 loss to Nigeria in the group stage. However, convincing victories over Greece (4-0) and favourites Argentina (2-0) qualified Bulgaria for the knockout stage. There, they beat Mexico over penalties and World Cup holders Germany (2-1) to make the world’s top four. A hard-fought loss against Italy prevented them from reaching the final, however.
4. Pioneer of the modern Olympics: Charles Champaud, 1896
When the Ancient Greek Olympics were restarted with the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, only about a dozen nations sent their athletes to participate in Pierre de Coubertin’s world-changing event. Among these athletes was a Swiss-born gymnast, Charles Champaud, who had arrived in Bulgaria a few years earlier to teach gymnastics in Sofia.
Now, whether Champaud represented Bulgaria or Switzerland is a matter of debate. Though thanks to his participation, Bulgaria can claim to have been among the founding nations of the modern Olympics. Champaud had other contributions to Bulgarian sports history though – in 1895, he had organized the first ever football game in Sofia.
5. Junior Wimbledon and US Open winner: Grigor Dimitrov, 2008
Grigor Dimitrov is perhaps Bulgaria’s greatest tennis talent of all times and already a major Bulgarian sports star. Just 23 years old, he currently ranks 12th in the world and is one of the youngest in the ATP Top 50. He’s already got 3 ATP titles to his name; before him, a Bulgarian man hadn’t won a single ATP title and Bulgarians had barely scratched the Top 100.
Dimitrov broke on the world stage in 2008, when he dominated junior tennis by winning the Boys’ Singles tournaments at Wimbledon and the US Open and getting to the junior World No. 1 ranking. Oh, and he’s dating Maria Sharapova too, which is an achievement in itself.
6. Amazing Olympic medal count: 220 medals over the years
There are 204 countries in the world which participate in the Olympics. Of these, 73 have not won a single medal. Bulgaria is not among these countries. With its 220 total medals, Bulgaria ranks around the top 20 in the all-time Olympic medal table: way ahead of bigger and more influential countries like Spain, Turkey, Argentina or India.
Bulgaria’s medals mostly come from two sports – wrestling (68 medals) and weightlifting (36 medals), in which Bulgaria has been a traditional Olympic powerhouse.
7. Long-standing athletic world records: Stefka Kostadinova and Yordanka Donkova, 1987 & 1988
One of the oldest unbroken world records in athletics belongs to a Bulgarian. In 1987, Stefka Kostadinova won the high jump of the World Championships in Rome with the sensational 2.09 metres. It has been 27 years since then and no other woman has managed to match or beat this record.
Another unmatched Bulgarian athletic feat belongs to Yordanka Donkova. Her record in 100 metres hurdles set in 1988 continues to be the benchmark for all women in this discipline. Remarkably, Donkova set the record three times in 1986 before it was beaten by fellow Bulgarian Ginka Zagorcheva in 1987… only for Donkova to set the currently standing 26-year-old record a year later!