Interview with Bulgarian weightlifter Zlatan Vanev

Zlatan Vanev Full Interview

Last month Zlatan Vanev, one of the sport’s fiercest competitors, was a guest on the show ‘Code: Sport’ on TV+, a Bulgarian channel. Until now this interview has only been accessible to Bulgarian speakers, but thanks to our friend Aleksandar Angelov Weightlifting now has a full translation of the interview.


  • Zlatan’s rebel personality and the subsequent complications with associating with Bulgarian weightlifting
  • Becoming a champion in three different weight classes
  • The competitiveness of the Bulgarian national team
  • Dislocating his elbow three times
  • Zlatan’s relationship with Abadjiev
  • The complications with Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Valentin Christov, and Boyanka Kostova

Zlatan Vanev is a Bulgarian weightlifter who, under the coaching of the legendary Ivan Abadjiev, became a three time World Champion (’97, ’98, ’02) across three weight classes (70 kg, 77 kg, 85 kg). In 2000 Vanev hit a world record clean and jerk of 208.5 kg in the 77 kg weight class. Two years later as an 85 kg lifter Vanev clean and jerked 217.5 kg, half a kilo under Zhang Yong’s 218 kg world record.

Before you read this interview I feel I ought to suggest that you watch this video of Zlatan Vanev to truly understand the ferocity with which this man trained. His five attempts at a 210 kg clean and jerk caught on camera by Iron Mind perfectly depicts the brutality and challenges imposed by Ivan Abadjiev and the Bulgarian system on its athletes. Can’t see the video? click here.

You can find the original interview in Bulgarian here

‘Everywhere there are difficulties, I get over them, I grew to be a hard man. I never give up…’

Everything below this line is a translation of the full Zlatan Vanev interview.

Zlatan Vanev has a reputation of being a bit of a rebel and does not shy away from conflicts and provocation, clearly showing his opinions. He was like this as a competitor and remains this way as a coach today, his most recent endeavour.

‘I don’t want to talk about doping, but I think it is not as important as people think. Everyone says that those who are on top of the world take drugs but they don’t look at their training’

Q) “Hi Zlatan! What is the situation in Bulgarian weightlifting after our federation paid the $250,000 fee to the IWF? Have things calmed down now?

A) I am not close to the federation, and my club is still to get a license. As I’m not a member at this stage, I cannot answer your question. I think we work well when we want to. I do not know what happens in the federation.

Q) You have a reputation of a “sharp stone” [Bulgarian saying for someone who is hard to get along with] – is this why you are not a member of the federation yet? Do you disagree with anything they do? What is the reason for this?

A) I don’t know where this reputation comes from. Every man is free to have a point of view – one is “sharp stone”, another is “flat stone”. I have never worked with the new federation that formed in 2011. I love the sport and want to be part of it. I have been involved in weightlifting for 35 years now. I didn’t expect it to be that hard to do what you love most. But everywhere there are difficulties, I get over them, I grew to be a hard man. I never give up and maybe that’s what helped me in sport to win those titles I have won.

‘During my first training back from injury I couldn’t even pick the barbell as I felt the fear of it happening again’

Q) You’ve fought many battles over the years? What causes motivated you to keep fighting those battles in your career?

A) I wouldn’t say I have fought many battles but I always valued fairness. I wanted respect for the people like me who gave so much for the success we had in the sport. I think that weightlifting is still one of the sports where we have won the most medals in Bulgaria. We are still among the countries with the most gold medals ever won.

More recently we’ve seen a decline in this trend, which is bad. Today, to be a contestant for the Olympic medals you need to win Worlds. European championships are behind, although there is still a glimpse of success we have there, but we are far behind the World’s best.

Q) What would you say to those who say that in sports such as weightlifting which is cyclical (similar to cycling and athletics) and that it is impossible to achieve world records without doping?

A) I don’t want to talk about doping, but I think it is not as important as people think. Everyone says that those who are on top of the world take drugs but they don’t look at their training. There is saying that comes to mind from my coach Ivan Abadjiev, who used to say that ‘if we get someone from the street and give him doping, would he become World champion then?’ I therefore think a lot of what is being said on the topic is wrong. Training comes first and other means to support this everyone uses the best way they can. There has been unfairness which puzzles me too but it is what it is. We will have to accept this.

‘We all lifted more than 200kg in the clean and jerk. In nationals, even if you came 3rd or 4th you’d be a contestant for the medals at Worlds’

Q) Tell us about your club – what is your model? You were in Ruse, what happened there? What are your current projects?

A) I started my own club in Ruse in 2016. The sports school there offered me an abandoned hall, which I had to bring back to life. It was hard and I’d say I am one of the few who take this sort of challenge. I used my own finances to create a training hall with eight platforms. I bought barbells for the children to train with. In two years we established ourselves as one of the leading weightlifting schools in the country. We currently work with more than 30 children and 2 coaches. In 2017 we competed for team “Sliven” [Alek’s note: an established club in southern Bulgaria, where the head coach is Norair Nurikyan]. As you know we do not have a license which also puzzles me how competitors from Ruse could compete for other clubs.

Q) Is there a reason you are not getting a license?

A) I have applied twice now. First time I received a silent “no”. Second time, I tell you the truth, there was a decision by the federation where they wrote to me that in Ruse there is already one club so there is no need for a second one. The existing one has good finances and specialists already. So if children want to train they can go there. I know many cities with more than 2-3 clubs. So I assume there is another problem which they don’t tell me about.

In 2017 we had many successes competing for Sliven. The following year I decided that my lifters will compete for the team of my good friend Georgi Markov. I transferred all of those who train under my guidance and in Ruse’s sport school to Markov’s club in Burgas. In 2018 we won 126 medals at the Bulgarian nationals. We came second in Bulgaria in terms of medals and 3rd in points. I think we did well with my friend there.

‘All the media claimed that I would give up…
I didn’t just have to start from scratch, I hit rock bottom’

Q) You have won 3 world titles – Chengmai 1997 in -70kg, Lakhti the following year in – 77kg and in 2002 in Warsaw in – 85kg. What allowed you to make these jumps in weight categories? Did this not bother you?

A) It is truth that each category is whole new ball game for each lifter, but I managed to do it. When I was -77kg lifter I had to lose 4.5kg. I did this for 2-3 meets. Then I lost 6 kg and that was really tough. I decided to stay at 77kg. I managed to reach the top of the world in this category and stayed there. Then I had to move to 85kg because otherwise I had to be in the same category with my best friend, who is like a younger brother to me – Georgi Markov. There was no way we would do this – two Bulgarians to be in this weight category!

It was very hard and I thought there is no way to win a third title in Warsaw at 85 kg. It was hard to put on those kilos and I thought I won’t achieve a good result and, as you know, this was after my second arm injury which was also a challenge. But I made it a third time. It was one my best wins, because I did not expect it, but I made it. In the snatch I came 8th and I didn’t think I could do it.

Q) Who were your biggest rivals over the years?

A) One Georgian and one Armenian, as well as other Bulgarians to whom I owe a lot, because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be Zlatan Vanev. These are Plamen Jeliazkov [Editors note: Jeliazkov has the 42nd highest Sinclair ever – 172.5/205 at 77] and Georgi Markov. We were in the middle categories and if there wasn’t this competition between us we would not have become such good weightlifters. I thank them from all my heart for this. In the middle categories we had 5-6 national team members. We all lifted more than 200kg in the clean and jerk. In nationals, even if you came 3rd or 4th you’d be a contestant for the medals at Worlds.

“Do not worry, after all this hard work there is no way success won’t come!”

Ivan Abadjiev

Q) I would like to bring you back to a painful moment – in Europeans you dislocated your elbow. It was a scary moment for us watching and the people in the hall. How did you deal with this situation?

A) It was hard. After such an injury very few would return to the platform. I remember that after the competition almost all media claimed that I would give up because I won’t return. But it must the Bulgarian spirit that keeps us going. I didn’t just have to start from scratch, I hit rock bottom.

I felt fear even when picking up an empty barbell. During my first training back from injury I couldn’t even pick the barbell as I felt the fear of it happening again. It required a lot of will power along with hard work but I managed to come back. Then it happened again in training, two weeks before Sydney. I was on a training camp in Kuala Lumpur. I was preparing, I had my hopes up. There was no way I couldn’t win there. But then it happened again.

Instead of heading to Sydney I headed back to Bulgaria…

It took me a year and three months before I started to realise that I would have to give up weightlifting. However, instead I returned again. I became World and European champion again! In 2005 I started fresh after all these injuries. I didn’t want to retire because of an injury! Bad luck though, I dislocated my elbow third time. Here is the place to thank an amazing surgeon from Pleven – Prof. Baltov, who has since passed away. He was the reason I was able to return for the third time after a successful operation. He didn’t allow me to pay even a penny to the hospital, instead he said: “I am a sponsor of Zlatan Vanev”. He did my operation for free.

He allowed to retire as an active competitor and not because of injury. Three times I was hit by major injuries in the same arm but I somehow managed to come back. My mind wouldn’t accept that I would give up weightlifting. And I still cannot accept this.

Iron Mind

Q) Your biggest successes were under Ivan Abadjiev. He often referred to you as an example for the others, you were captain of the national team, with 31 medals from big competitions. Tell us something about your relationship with Abadjiev, the “Pope” of Bulgarian weightlifting?

A) Mr Abadjiev is a great coach. I got to the big stage under his coaching. I never worried about coming 2nd when I was at a competition with him. We didn’t even think about this. He was a maximalist. He used to say: “You are training for the first place”. And it always happened this way as under him I won first every time. He loved me because of my persistence. I was tireless in training, he sometimes had to stop me from training. My friends from the national team can confirm this. He loved hard-working athletes. He used to say: “Do not worry, after all this hard work there is no way success won’t come!”.

Q) Your home town Shumen has given weightlifting two other lifters – Yanko Rusev and Ivan Ivanov. Is this just a coincidence?

A) Shumen has a strong school for lifters. I would go as far as to say that they are those who won the most titles for the sport. Yanko Rusev is an Olympic champion, five times a World champion, and five times a European champion. Big sportsman, big names!

Ivan Abadjiev is also from this area, from Novi Pazar. He used to tell me that back in the days the academy of Novi Pazar would face the German Democratic Republic [‘GDR’ or ‘East Germany’]. A small town against a whole country! We were great then! There are other areas in Bulgaria that have given great sportsmen but back then our area was the home of weightlifting in Bulgaria.

‘I will fight till the end for this! To win the Olympic gold at least as a coach!’

Q) Shortly after the end of your competitive career you became assistant coach to the Bulgarian national team but then it seems like you got disappointed. Why did you then go to Azerbaijan?

A) This was a very hard time for Bulgarian weightlifting. I am not sure whether we did the right thing but during these years there were a lot of problems in the federation. It was taken to court, there was no federation then. In 2011 they gave the current federation a license.

I had one young lifter I was coaching then – Valentin Hristov [Editor’s Note – Valentin Hristov got popped a few days ago]. Five years I’ve been training him like my own son. I had a document that said that I was his custodian until he reached 18 years of age. But then there was no Bulgarian federation so I had to look for a way for him to continue in the sport. Then I was offered to become a coach in Azerbaijan. They asked me three times but I refused. Why? I had a grown weightlifter and I wanted him to compete for Bulgaria. But this was not possible. So on the third time they asked I wrote them a letter that if I go there I want to be able to take him with me. I was his custodian. I could not leave him behind and say: “I’m going to coach in a different country, I am leaving you to your fate here, do what you must.”

No one knew that Bulgaria had such a lifter. Azerbaijan told me that they give me a month to prove he is good and they will make sure he can train there. I took him there with me. They loved him. Valentin stayed there with me. Then Boyanka Kostova [Editor’s Note – Boyanka Kostova was popped but has recently returned] also came with her coach Luchezar Kishkilkov. On 25 May 2011 the current federation got their license. We had to ask the Bulgarian federation to allow them both to lift for Azerbaijan. They offered a price which was paid by Azerbaijan for this. I was sad, because I have given so much time and attention to this kid and that of Mr Luchezar Kishkilkov to Boyanka Kostova, but the current federation had no money as it was newly established.

In 2010 we did not participate in any competitions because we didn’t have money. The Bulgarian federation received the sum of €400,000 to allow them to compete for Azerbaijan. When the transfer happened, the Bulgarian federation was able to buy barbells for the clubs and equipment for them to train. I think that this way myself and Mr Kishkilov played our part in this. We invested in our lifters everything we had and I continue to do this now. I invest the salary I get from the school to be able to keep the club running. I buy them transportation passes so they can come and train and go back home in the evening so they can also do their homework. We pay accommodation for about 13 children to make sure they can train properly. I do not want to say a big word but after 2020 I hope we will have 3-4 national athletes who can represent Bulgaria and wave our flag the way we did in the past.

‘My mind wouldn’t accept that I would give up weightlifting. And I still cannot accept this’

Q) How did you leave Azerbaijan? There were rumours but what really happened?

A) Honestly, it was tough. I may be one of the most successful coaches of Azerbaijan. I coached there for four years and three months. I left Bulgaria on the 2nd March 2011 and came back on the 29th of March 2015, my Birthday. I was a national lifter for 18 years and was always on training camps. We used to train all year round. And I had a family. My wife brought up our children mostly on her own. I was always at camps or competing. And then when I retired I became a coach and I left. The children grew up, my daughter is now 22 years old and my son is 18. I wanted to come back. I didn’t even know my own son wanted to do weightlifting as well!

Q) Did he not win a competition recently?

A) Yes, he won Bulgarian Nationals. When I found out, I just wanted to come back, to be able to help him too!

Q) Do you think your son, Simeon, could bring back home the missing Olympic medal to the Vanevs?

A) That would be a dream come true! I couldn’t win an Olympic medal in my career. I have three World and four European titles but I could not win the Olympics. I have managed to prepare a lifter who won a medal at the Olympics [Editor’s Note – Referring to Valentin Christov]. I now dream of preparing one who can win it! I would be happy if he can be among them or any other of my athletes. I will fight till the end for this! To win the Olympic gold at least as a coach!

Q) Do you still have ambitions in politics? If I am not wrong, you are a member of a political party in Ruse…

A) I am now a young “revivalist”. I decided to become part of a project of the political party “Revival” [Bulgarian: ‘Възраждане’]. I liked the party, it is made of young people, real people. I have been asked before to go into politics but I have always tried to stay away from it. I am not saying I never helped anyone but I have always been lied to. I do not necessarily want to be part of anything huge, but rather something real. I want to be among the real people and do something tangible. I figured that when I sit on the side I cannot influence this the way I wanted to. I want to help our sport go forward and I think that with what I am doing I will have success in this.

Q) Do you still tame pigeons and peacocks?

A) Currently, I have peacocks only, but my mum and dad look after them. They are very beautiful creatures and I love them. Maybe I’ll bring them with me here in Ruse soon. I have a house here for a year now but I haven’t got a chance to make space for them yet but I will get there!

Once again a huge thank you to our Bulgarian correspondent Aleksandar Angelov for his work in translating this.

GOOD NEWS – we have more Zlatan interviews coming. Zlatan recently answered some more training specific questions for Weightlifting House which we will publish here soon, including his biggest training lifts ever and the most impressive feats of strength he has witnessed.

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