The White Prisoner: Galabin Boevski’s secret story, by Ognian Georgiev, translated by Ilko Germanov
[NB: I recognize this is not Part II of the Mike Grabero/Lydiet Valentin
fiasco love story. But iambic pentameter takes time! And effort. For those of you wondering how it ends (spoiler alert! not well..), it will come… eventually.]
I generally do not read athlete biographies, autobiographies, or sports memoirs. And by “generally” I mean never. The few athlete interviews I’ve seen, mostly during the Olympics, when NBC is pimping out athletes for Hallmark-style profiles of their struggles and triumphs, make US Weekly look like existential French literature by comparison. I imagine athlete bios/autobios are rather similar, filled with trite platitudes on grit and dedication along with solemn oaths of anti-drug stances, all with some hurdles thrown in to make the hero’s struggle look interesting. Also, I read David Foster Wallace’s superb essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” about Austin’s sports memoir Beyond Center Court: My Story, and it pretty much ruined the genre for me (in his words, a “breathtakingly insipid autobiography”).*
Of course, a sports biography about a weightlifter is an entirely different thing. I’ll read or watch almost anything related to Olympic Weightlifting, especially when it comes to the international superstars of the sport. A two-hour long video of a couple weightlifters sitting at a kitchen table and doing nothing other than talking in Russian? Sign me up, even if I don’t understand a word of what they’re saying. [Maybe it’s good that I don’t know Russian, and therefore don’t know if they’re just making one “breathtakingly insipid” remark after another.] Thankfully, there are more interesting things out there, like the recent training videos that Gregor has been posting on his excellent All Things Gym.
So with the prospect of a book about the great Galabin Boevski—three-time European Champion, two-time World Champion, Olympic Champion, and former world record holder—I was understandably excited, as I imagine were several of my fellow weightlifters. Beyond just a recounting of an athlete’s life story, the book promised—per a series of Facebook updates leading up to its publication—to give readers an inside view into the world of Bulgarian weightlifting during its heyday in the 1990s: The training! The intrigue! The doping! Abadjiev! The politics! Did I mention the doping? I did? It bears repeating: The doping!
Yes, it appeared that someone (either Boevski or the author) finally had the courage to openly discuss the realities of PEDs in top-level competitive weightlifting.
It was also the chance to learn the story about Boevski’s tragic fall in the years following gold in Sydney: his 8-year suspension for a doping violation in 2004 and his arrest in October 2011 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, when he was caught with 9 kilos of cocaine in his luggage while trying to board a flight to Europe [To be fair, 9 kilos to a guy who snatched 165 and clean & jerked 196.5 with relative ease is basically a rounding error. Sort of.]
[Q.E.D., and a hat tip here to naren kartal for the video]
Furthermore, as DFW notes in his excellent essay, we want to know great athletes. Their extraordinary prowess on the platform (or the field, or court, or wherever) suggests that perhaps everything about them must be extraordinary. “They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable [or today, YouTube-able]. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.” (143) Also, they often have such great intercostals…
It was in search of these details about a weightlifter I had marveled at for over a decade that I tore through The White Prisoner once it was made available for purchase. In truth, I was aided by the book’s brevity; it’s not exactly In Search of Lost Time. It’s probably not even the Cliff’s Notes for In Search of Lost Time, to be honest. But I didn’t let that concern me; after all, some truly great books are little more than pamphlets: Of Mice and Men. The Road. Everybody Poops.
Does The White Prisoner rank up there with those pillars of the literary canon? Does it reveal a far more complex, human Galabin Boevski to complement the lifting machine most of us are familiar with? Does it add detail and texture to one of the most famous (or infamous) lifting regimes of all time? And, perhaps most importantly, does it tell us details about the Bulgarian program’s doping regimen???
In brief: no, not exactly, a little, and, again, no. The first shortcoming is forgivable. The book was written in Bulgarian and translated into English, so it’s possible something was lost in the translation. One certainly hopes so, with lines like the following: “Curvaceously, long-legged German and Russian women move along Varna’s central street and throw lustful looks at the strong guys drinking coffee.” [Note to self: move to Varna. Also, get strong and drink more coffee.] Maybe in Bulgarian that particular turn of phrase has the same aesthetic merit as the final sentence of The Great Gatsby.** Maybe the Bulgarian version features prose so compelling the book is now being added to the Bulgarian high school curriculum. [If you’ve read the Bulgarian version, please, be in touch: I’m curious.] I wouldn’t bet the Varna farm on it, but I’m open to the possibility.
Writing aside, the other issues are more troubling. But before I get to my problems with the book, I should point out that for a weightlifting fan The White Prisoner is still a reasonably enjoyable read. The author, Bulgarian sports journalist Ognian Georgiev, provides a clear narrative that takes us through the life of Galabin Boevski, from his days as a boy wanting to play soccer up to his gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In addition to a summary of Boevski’s development as a lifter—which is interspersed with scenes of his arrest in Brazil, imprisonment, and eventual (inexplicable) early release—there are some interesting behind-the-scenes looks at Bulgarian athletes training and competing in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There is some light, for example, thrown on the political side of the sport, something most of us are only vaguely aware of. In one instance (if the book is to be believed), Boevski is intentionally sidelined with a fabricated doping violation in order to prevent him from competing against Naim Suleymanoglu, thus guaranteeing the latter’s supremacy. Boevski had allegedly lifted more than his Turkish rival in training, but Suleymanoglu’s reign was seen as beneficial to the sport of weightlifting. Per Stefan Georgiev (another Bulgarian lifter): “…coaches are saying the Olympic Committee is deciding on which sports to leave and which to cut. They are setting Suleymanoglu up to be the first three times Olympic champion in weightlifting.”
[Stefan Georgiev, who features throughout the book; IronMind videos]
Most of us who’ve followed international lifting for any amount of time have heard rumors of these sorts of deals (discussed here, briefly), where certain athletes are put on the podium as much through political machinations as through athletic ability; depending on your view, the book’s discussion comes across as an affirmation of what we already believed or a way to shift blame to forces beyond an athlete’s control. Unfortunately, the reliance on oral histories makes it impossible for the reader to assess these claims.
Ognian Georgiev also paints an interesting image of Abadjiev, one that will no doubt add to the myths surrounding the most famous weightlifting coach of all time. The Bulgarian legend variously comes across as a tyrant, a schemer, a shrewd politician, and a madman. In one instance, his abilities as a coach are subtly (or not-so-subtly) questioned, when his “system” is described as nothing more than pushing athletes to lift ever heavier weights while giving them ever fuller cups of pills. “That was Abadzhiev’s system,” writes Ognian. “It didn’t include analysis of the technical posture of the legs, back, and shoulders.” [NB: Did Abadjiev invent CrossFit?] In another instance, which again seems the stuff of Paul Bunyan-esque legend, Abadjeiv is said to have gone “to slaughterhouses to collect oxen testicles, so his weightlifters could get stronger.”
Yet despite some revealing moments, much of the book falls short of providing the sort of information I had hoped for. There is an acute absence of detail about life in an Eastern European sporting dynasty. The training of Boevski is never explicitly outlined, for example (cf. the charts provided in the biography of Naim Suleymanoglu, available from Sportivny Press). Mentions of doping are mostly limited to vague references, such as the following (about training under Abadjiev): “Drugs, vitamins and amino acids are taken on a schedule.” That sentence could just as easily have come from a brochure for a nursing home as from a book about top-level weightlifting.
The one PED listed by name—Orocetam—is a substance so obscure and unremarkable it doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia page, or any noteworthy mentions via a Google search. The drug, available via a Bulgarian pharmaceutical company, is apparently a mix of Piracetam (a nootropic marketed as Nootropil in the US) and orotic acid. I don’t necessarily doubt that Orocetam was part of the medicinal cocktail used by certain Bulgarian (and other) athletes; I just don’t think it’s the most interesting, relevant, or—depending on your viewpoint—egregious PED that was being used. It’s like reading about faulty light fixtures in a book about how the Titanic sunk.
There’s also precious little critical insight into the person of Boevski, especially for a book that essentially appears to be a memoir (albeit one written by a person other than the subject). There are some stock elements of athletic achievement: the discovery at a young age, the resistant parents, the father-figure coaches, the victories and disappointments, the usual shock (and denial) at positive drug test results, and so on. Only the specter of regret at having missed out on so much due to dedicating oneself to a sport is given some concreteness:
“The endless rollercoaster of his sporting life cost him those most precious moments. He recalled his colleagues in the national team receiving news of the birth of their children on the phone. They could not even bring them into the municipality. They waited for the competition to end, then had a day or two off, before the wheel spun again.”
Yet as interesting, and in many ways tragic, as this is it’s still a variant on the well-worn theme of sacrifice; the only difference here—and I do think this is critical—is that there’s little sense of an NBC-style happy ending to the sacrifices. Rather, we’re left with a picture of athletes broken and discarded by a system that exploited them (and that continues to do so).
But beyond that we’re never really given access to Boevski, or what it’s like to train so rigorously and then be on top of the world at such a relatively young age (he was World Champion at 25 and Olympic Champion at 26). In his essay on the Tracy Austin memoir, Wallace highlights an issue that I think is relevant here (and for all weightlifters):
“The only thing Tracy Austin had ever known how to do, her art—what the tragic-savvy Greeks would have called her technē, that state in which Austin’s mastery of craft facilitated a communion with the gods themselves—was removed from her at an age when most of us are just starting to think seriously about committing ourselves to some pursuit.” (150)
Indeed, what is it like to lose your technē as a weightlifter at an age when many of us in the States are only at the start of our weightlifting careers? What is it like for those athletes who went through the Bulgarian system in the 1990s? We know the trajectories of some figures—Vanev becoming the coach of Azerbaijan, for example—but that’s a predictable end, and it still provides no insight into an experience that few of us will ever, ever know.
As for the cocaine story, it’s such a clear attempt at whitewashing the entire affair and proclaiming Boevski’s innocence that it really doesn’t warrant attention. There are some new details to the story, but in essence it’s a one-sided examination of the arrest and conviction. In short, Boevski was allegedly the victim of “suitcase swapping” at the hands of African drug smugglers—a possibility, no doubt, but in the absence of any corroborating evidence it’s a tough story to buy.
Despite these shortcomings, there are enough anecdotes and details about the Bulgarian superstars of the 1990s (e.g., Vanev’s multiple elbow blow outs) to make this book a worthwhile read for any weightlifting fan. In addition to some of the points mentioned above, one of the most interesting is the terrifically powerful sense of nationalism that accompanied competition in the era (and that presumably is still a part of the sport, as evidenced by examples like this in 2010). In few places is this made more apparent than when Reyhan Arabacioglu of Turkey goes up against Boevski at the 2002 World Championships in Antalya.
[hat tip again to naren kartal]
To a Westerner unfamiliar with the region’s history—which is pretty much every American and most Westerners—there are whole layers of conflict and backstory that we miss out on. But to every Turk and Bulgarian in the venue it seems clear that this is as much about five centuries of Ottoman (i.e., Turkish) rule over Bulgaria as it is about weightlifting. No doubt these nationalistic tendencies were further influenced (strengthened?) following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and I imagine there are undertones on the current weightlifting stages that we as Westerners miss entirely. (To say nothing of the rivalries, also mentioned in the book, between the various clubs *within* a country…)
Of course, the degree to which The White Prisoner represents any sort of “on the ground” reality of the Bulgarian lifting program during the 1990s and 2000s, or any truths about Boevski or the sport in general, is debatable. This is a retelling that appears to be based primarily on oral histories provided by people in Boevski’s circle. Like any text, it’s in some sense a fiction, albeit one that purports to have links to real people, places, and events. This is not to detract from it, as I’m sure that to the people providing the stories the events did occur as they remember and tell them. In the words of Cormac McCarthy, “Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.”*** But for a book claiming to be nonfiction I expect a little more diligence, or at least some digging, and I want to see the results of the digging on the page. Oral histories put into book form can make for an interesting story, but they only tell part of the tale, and they deserve the same scrutiny as any linguistic act.
Thus, The White Prisoner ultimately left me wanting more. There is no doubt a wealth of information that a little deeper investigative work and development might have brought to light. Perhaps some of these details—stuff as simple as what it’s like to live in Knezha (Boevski’s hometown) or Sofia (where the national team trained), or what it’s like to live in the shadow of a superpower like the former USSR—would be too mundane for a Bulgarian audience, but these are things I imagine would appeal to most English-language readers. Unlike the Tracy Austin autobiography panned by Wallace, I think there is a fascinating story to tell here; it’s just missing from these pages, even if there are moments of excitement. Although perhaps this is the case with any athlete biography or memoir: we mortals can never really know what it’s like, and any text that promises to provide that sort of insight is bound to come up short.
*If you have not done so already, read the essay. Then read anything else by David Foster Wallace.
** “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
*** From his outstanding Blood Meridian, which, if you haven’t read it, you should stop what you’re doing and rush out to buy it. GO! NOW!