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The Little Big Man From Sevlievo

Interview with Norair Nurikian, 2004
By Georgi Angelov, Bulgarian Diplomatic Review

Mr. Nurikyan, how did you go in for practicing such a little known at the time sport?

I must have had a gift since childhood. My father, God bless him, was a baker and I loved going to the bakery. He used to make terrific buns with cheese and butter that I wouldn't swap for steak or anything. He was a very strong man physically and obviously I have inherited these qualities from him. I think it is genetic.

Most of us, Armenian children in Sevlievo, used to take violin lessons. In 1958-1959 there was a teacher Misho Todorov with whom I had violin lessons. One day he told me, "You won't make a violinist. You'd make a boxer." True, he missed the right sport but he was right in general.

Yet, as far as I know, you did not begin with weightlifting?

I trained basketball at first. And I was very good. At the time there was one rule: each one on the team had to play a minimum of five minutes in official matches. That way I took part in the competitions. I haven't played against Golomeev, but I have played against Boicho Branzov, another great Bulgarian basketball player. I was too short however.

One day, I happened to enter the weightlifting hall with two friends of mine. We had spare time and decided to peep in. It was then that Ivan Abadzhiev spotted me. He offered me to start training with him but I refused, saying I was a basketball player. He smiled and said basketball players were required to be about 2 m tall. He said he knew my father and mother and I would never be as tall as a good basketball player needs to be. It's true, I'm about 160 cm. Then Abadzhiev promised I would make great progress in a year. And he was right, exactly one year after I became master of sport.

Then what happened?

First, I had to go to the army and when I was discharged I entered the Higher School of Sports. Luckily, at that time Ivan Abadzhiev was already appointed federative coach in Sofia. So I went in training with him. At first I was not the best. Although I was on the national team, first in my category was Atanas Kirov, also a great weightlifter. He was the first Bulgarian to win the European title.

I am grateful to Ivan Abadzhiev for having always believed in me. He said I had the power to achieve international success.

Which is your first success outside Bulgaria?

In Warsaw, 1969. It was almost accidental. I was in group B and we lifted in the morning. I did my attempts, went for lunch and then for a walk. In the afternoon it was the turn of group A. Naturally, I went to watch them. I was sitting in the audience, one ill success of the competitors, another, suddenly it turned out I was 3rd in Europe and 5th in the world. It was a tremendous success for a Bulgarian at the time. I was to be awarded but I was not dressed properly. Someone found a new training suit and that's how I went to get my medal.

In 1970 I was banned from the world championship but in the pre-Olympic 1971 I came 3rd in the world championship in Peru. Then Spartak, the trainer of Columbia, an Armenian from Yerevan, told Ivan Avadjiev, "If he does not become an Olympic champion it will be your fault."

The Olympic Games in Munich, what do you remember them with?

Wait. It's not so fast. When we returned to Bulgaria we started feverish preparations for the Olympic Games. In January 1972 I broke a bone in my right wrist and I couldn't train. Then Abadzhiev had the genius idea for me to just squat with the barbell. So, while the others would do the snatch, I would squat, they did the clean and jerk, I squatted. This went on for three months until my bone healed. From 200 kg in the squats I improved my results to 230 kg.

And the Olympics in Munich?

Yes. The happiest moment in my life, the Olympic Games in Munich. On the first day there was a small accident in our team. The bus that was taking us to the hall burst in flames. Thank God, another bus chanced to be going that way and took the team in time for the weighing. If we had not made it we would have been disqualified.

On the next day the competition in my category started. It was very tight. Favourite was the Soviet lifter Shanidze, a Georgian. He was considered a sure winner by everybody. Anyway, the competition began. I was worried about the first style because there I was a little unstable. Clean performance was a must. But it went fine. In the other style, if I lifted 147.5 kg I would be second for sure. I lifted them. Suddenly Shanidze failed in his further attempts and Abadzhiev told me, "Listen, wonders can happen here. The one who has a strong mind and character will be Olympic champion. To be first you have to lift so many kilos." This was a new world record, a weight I had not lifted even in training sessions. I said, "Okay." I went out on the platform and pulled the barbell to my chest. Usually, if I did that my attempt was successful. I lifted the barbell above my head, made three steps to balance it, and the three white lamps lighted up - successful attempt. The joy of our delegation was enormous. I was the first Bulgarian Olympic champion in heavy athletics.

What happened then?

Abadzhiev has said it many times, and others have said it, that the "star disease" does not bypass anyone. I suppose I got it too. But I don't regret anything. At that time I met my wife and for a while training went to the background. I had medals from world and European championships, second place, third place. Normal.

In 1975 I was again in top shape and ready to win. It was then that we made an experiment I went to a lower category and as a result at the world championship I came to null. Abadzhiev was greatly criticized.

Next year, the Olympic 1976, there was a European championship in Berlin and I came first in my new category. My wife Merry later told me that Abadzhiev had cried.

At the Olympics in Montreal I had no problem - second Olympic title.

Why did you retire afterwards?

Well, I was not so young, and the family wanted its due.

How did your life go on?

I became a coach, assistant to Abadzhiev in the national team. Later I was senior coach myself for a while.

You spent some time in the United States?

I tried to live there. In fact, my family is still there, Merry and our son. He is 30 years old and is very smart and talented, pity he did not take up sports. Anyway I have come back. Perhaps sport is too much in my blood. Now I am again doing what I love.

 

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