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Comment: Bulgarian Sport Needs a Clean-up

Politicians parade sportsmen on their election campaigns, while sport languishes in the mire of mismanagement and alleged corruption.
By Viktor Karabalukov

Many of Bulgaria's big political parties are making use of sporting celebrities to boost their campaigns ahead of this June's parliamentary elections.


The ruling National Movement Simeon II, NDSV, has chosen a football star, Iordan Lechkov, to fight for a seat in the town of Sliven.


A right-wing opposition party, the United Democratic Forces, UDF, meanwhile, has appointed Olympic athletics champion Hristo Markov to front its campaign.


But while politicians clearly want sportsmen beside them on their election platforms, few seem ready to address the problems facing Bulgarian sports in terms of mismanagement and instances of reported corruption.


The BBC last year filmed Ivan Slavkov, Bulgarian member of the International Olympic Committee, IOC, apparently expressing interest in selling his vote on the international committee.


The Panorama programme "Buying the Games", shown just ahead of the Athens Olympics, hinted at a widespread subculture of "cash-for-votes" deals in the bidding for the 2012 Games. The IOC's final decision on Slavkov - who strenuously denies any wrongdoing - is expected in July.


While in Bulgaria, some of the local media depicted him as the victim of a conspiracy, the affair has saddled Bulgarian sport internationally with a reputation for corruption.


Not surprisingly, while Bulgaria's ministry of youth and sport hopes to tap EU pre-accession funds, some doubt this money will be used wisely or appropriately.


Under communism, Bulgarian sport developed on Soviet lines.


Centralised and government controlled, all the major decisions were in the hands of officials of the Bulgarian Communist Party, BKP.


The distribution of resources was hard to account for and the main purpose often appeared to consist of proving to the West that Socialist sports were of superior quality.


Since communism collapsed, sport has continued to follow the centralising Russian tradition, while westernising at the same time. There is less state funding for training now and more western-style clubs.


This election, the last to be held before Bulgaria's expected entry into the EU, may well be the moment when party politics decide which way Bulgarian sports will go.


If, as polls suggest, the heirs to the old Communist Party in the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, win, sport will probably continue to follow a state-funded, centralised, Russian model.


The two right-wing opposition parties, the UDF and the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, DSB, in general have better sporting credentials.


They have acknowledged the need to cut state administration, reduce political interference and bring more professionals into sports management.


While the previous right-of-centre government, led from 1997 to 2002 by Ivan Kostov, started to reform Bulgarian sport, scrapping the old communist-era "Union for Physical Culture and Sport", for example, the present government, led by the former king, Simeon Saxe-Coburg, has reinstated it. It also reappointed some of the old communist guard to high posts in the world of sports management.


Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedom, DPS, the party representing ethnic Turks and a junior partner in the government, says gaining access for Bulgarian sport to EU pre-accession funds will be a big issue in the election.


The DPS can be sure to benefit from such a development, as the party is well represented in the ministry of youth and sport, where Feim Chaushev holds the post of deputy minister.


Chaushev lacks an obvious background in sport, but is active internationally and is in charge of the implementation of the European Commission Youth Programme in Bulgaria.


According to official figures, between 2001 and 2003, Bulgaria obtained 1.5 million euro from this EC programme, while 9,000 young people took part in 405 projects that were partly funded by it.


But it is far from clear that European funding has re-invigorated what appears to be an ailing sporting culture.


One obvious problem is continued political interference. The sports ministry is supposed to be politically impartial; in practice, politicians meddle with it relentlessly.


After every election, supporters of the ruling party in practise take the leading posts, and in turn they politicise the ministry.


Another major handicap is the lack of good legislation. The former BSP government from 1994-6 passed some flawed legislation on sports and sports facilities while it was in office.


Governments since then have made amendments or proposed changes, especially in the area of privatisation. But without real commitment from the political and the sports establishment, it is all a matter of paying lip service.


The privatisation of state-owned sports facilities remains deeply controversial. The government wants the process to continue, while the BSP and UDF want to see more private-state partnerships, instead.


In the meantime, the newly rich use loopholes in the law to purchase sport facilities for small sums, usually to convert them into restaurants or bars for a quick profit.


Fundamental reform, rather than celebrity-style political campaigning, is needed to change the perception that Bulgarian sports are unprofessional and corrupt. But there is little appetite among current sports managers for any such reform.


Bulgarian football bosses, for example, seem reluctant to see their country join the EU for fear that new rules demanding clearer accountability, public budgets, and insurance for players, would bring the good old days to an end.


They do not want to pay up to upgrade sports stadiums either, even though they now do not meet European standards.


Their desire to escape greater scrutiny is understandable. Although football is Bulgaria's most popular sport, the club owners have failed to promote high professional standards and there is a lack of transparency over issues such as player transfers.


Bulgarian fans are expressing their displeasure with the state of Bulgarian sports - and with rotten stadiums and blatant match fixing.


Abandoning their local stadiums and teams, they increasingly stay at home and watch cup matches in England, Italy, Spain and Germany on television.


And players for the national side themselves have threatened to mutiny, complaining to the Bulgarian Football Association about everything from poor pay and benefits through to the quality of their Euro 2004 kit.


Without outside pressure, real reform of Bulgaria's sports seems unlikely to occur. In the meantime, Brussels should pay more attention to who is benefiting from its funding in Bulgaria - and how.


Viktor Karabalukov is the pseudonym of a sports sector executive.


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