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Growing up in Communist-era Bulgaria, Stanislav Dimitrov, 31, dreamed of being a sports star. Despite setback after setback, Stanislav persisted, until he was able to experience the sweet taste of victory. Since his first international gay sporting event, the EuroGames in Copenhagen, Stanislav has been passionate about helping gay and lesbian Bulgarians compete in sport and has developed much worldwide respect for his work. Thought to be the first openly gay athlete in Bulgaria, we asked Stanislav to reflect on his mission to be a successful runner, to make a difference for gay and lesbian Bulgarians, and the struggle to get to this summer’s games.
How did you first get involved in running?
When I was a child, it was my dream to be a big sportsman. I grew up in Shumensti, a village of a thousand people near the river Danube, in the Silistra region (northeastern part of Bulgaria). I really wanted to enter a sports school. During the communist times in Bulgaria, agents from the big sports schools would travel to look for new young stars in sports. My brother was selected to attend, but failed; so my father would not let me attend. It was very disappointing.
How did you follow your dream?
I continued to practice by myself. I just kept running and running. At the age of 9, I ran 10 kilometer for the first time. Then I completed my first marathon distance at the age of 14. I just ran around the villages around me.
After my secondary school, at 18 years old, I moved to Rousse, a city of 200,000. I studied English and trained on one of the athletic teams there (LOKOMOTIV).
I won the city championship of Rousse, for the four-kilometer race. When I was 19, I placed eighth in Bulgaria, at the Nationals for cross-country running. After that, I had stomach problems. The doctors told me that I had a duodenal ulcer and I had to stop all sports. I was so disappointed!
This news came to me right before my military service. In Bulgaria, prospective sportsmen had to do two years of obligatory military service, in a special “sports army.” However, I was free not to go in the army because of my ulcer.
Was that a blessing in disguise?
Yes. It was very stressful for me to consider going into the army. I was there only two months.
What happened once you finished your military service?
I was 20, and took a job in a transport company in the seaside capital of Bulgaria, Varna. My cousin Maria, who was also a marathon runner, introduced me to her coach. He had also an ulcer, but assured me that it would not be a problem for me to continue with my running. At first, I just had to get into good shape. If there were no problems, I could train more seriously again.
And so, you were OK?
Yes, I was. I ran my second marathon in 1996. My job was in an office. I left it to chase my dream. This was a big move, because I had good money in my job. I had a driver, mobile phones. I spoke six languages when I was 19. But my passion for running was not compatible. So I left because of my love of running. My boyfriend was a fashion designer. He made sure I was well fed. I was also a fashion model for his reviews. And I was able to train twice a day.
Tell me about some career highlights.
In 1998, at the age of 23, I won the silver medal from Junior National Championships in marathon. I placed sixth amongst all men in Bulgaria. Top ten in Bulgaria – I was in! In 1999, I felt a bit bored from so much running, so I started cycling. Some days, I cycled 200 kilometers! I decided to try the Duathlon national championships. I won the bronze medal. I started to swim and compete in triathlons. I placed top 10 many times in Bulgaria. In 2001, I was the third ranked triathlete in Bulgaria.
In 2001, I was already 26. Bulgaria was in a very poor economic situation. They stopped setting aside money for sports. To put it in perspective, in the last year of communist times in Bulgaria, 1988, at the Olympic Games in Seoul, Bulgaria had 10 Olympic champions, 12 silvers and 13 bronze – the fifth highest in the world. But now the situation is very bad and I realized I could not make sport my profession. It is very hard with no support from the government.
After realizing that professional sport would not work out in Bulgaria’s economic situation, what did you decide to do?
I started working as a manager for the first gay hotel in Bulgaria. I had no salary, but I had the opportunity to take part in the Copenhagen EuroGames in 2003.
Wow, no salary?
I had only food, an office, a room and the chance to go to Copenhagen. I had no spending money. Ocassionally, friends gave me money to buy sports clothes. Most Bulgarians make very little salary anyway (around 150 euros per month).
What was Copenhagen like after making such big sacrifices?
Absolutely! It was incredible to be at my first gay tournament. I stayed with a wonderful host in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with my result in the 10-kilometer race. I was not in good shape with such hard work at the hotel. I finished fourteenth overall with a disappointing time.
One of the things you are best known for is starting the first gay sport club in Bulgaria, Tangra Bulgaria.
It all started when I searched on the Internet for “gay sport.” I never knew that gay sport organizations existed! I was amazed to find organizations all over, including EGLSF (the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation).
I founded Tangra because sport is my life. I wanted a place for gays and lesbians to play sport. Tangra started to grow. At the EuroGames in Munich, Germany, we had 23 Bulgarians there. EGLSF has been supportive. Each of the Games has helped Bulgarians participate.
How did you do in Munich?
Unlike my disappointing finish in Copenhagen, I had much better success in Munich. I was lucky even to compete in the triathlon. I had major problems with my bicycle. The pedals, tires and brake system were all damaged from poor handling at Sofia airport. I did not have tools to fix it, but people around me were very friendly and helpful.
I was ready to start the race, and was calm again. Three minutes before the start of the swim, my coach came up to me and told me my tire was flat. I started to undress disappointedly, when the speaker announced that I needed help. Within seconds, some guys who I could barely understand told me to go swim, my bike would be ready when I came out of the water. And it was. I ended up taking the silver medal in the triathlon.
Wow. The spirit of camaraderie at gay and lesbian sporting events is so incredible. What happens with the athletes of Tangra now with the Gay Games and OutGames ahead?
The Montreal OutGames has been very generous in supporting athletes from Bulgaria. Remember that, without outreach, it would be impossible on a 150 euro monthly salary to participate. A big thank you to the Montreal Organizers. Even so, the airfare is 600 euros. That’s four month’s salary. We are trying to raise funds and get more sponsorship so that athletes can participate. The Bulgarian government is not able to support us at this time.
And what about Tangra?
It is still difficult for Bulgarians to participate in Tangra and keep it running. We have a very generous sponsor who pays for our facilities and other costs; however, we still need equipment. The fees we have to charge make it unaffordable for many of the people. We do what we can. I believe it will continue to make a difference.
What’s next for you?
I am finishing my International Economics degree and will be looking for a good job that will help support Tangra. Tangra is my child. I never give up that it will grow more and more. It’s my hobby and my life.
Authors note: As an athlete myself heading to the Games this summer, I was very moved by Stanislav’s story, and the sacrifices the Bulgarian athletes must make to be at these inspirational events. As such, I am donating my income from this story to Tangra, in the hopes that it will lead others reading this article to help these athletes follow their dreams. Stanislav is a world class, talented athlete. He would not be able to participate without support from the rest of us. If you would like to follow my lead, write to email@example.com.