The Bulgarian system of weightlifting generally refers to a style of intense, competition-centric training developed by Ivan Abadjiev in the 1980s and 90s. His Bulgarian team had immense success in those decades, setting world records across weight classes and winning world title after world title. Controversial even today, Abadjiev’s system has become the spiritual forerunner to “MAX OUT EVERY DAY” fanatics, though as Max Aita explains in this video, the methodology might have had a bit more nuance than many think.
Of course, Abadjiev’s Bulgarians were also accused — and sanctioned — numerous times for doping, and Bulgaria’s weightlifting federation now has a legacy of scandal. In fact, the entire team is banned from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Though his methods were harsh, Abadjiev treated his weightlifters as professionals with only one goal: win by lifting big weights. The training sessions and competitions captured in “School of Champions” — which covers the run-up to and days of the 1987 men’s World Weightlifting Championships — remains one of the few feature-length documentaries on professional weightlifters. It’s a legendary competition that — among others — saw both the snatch and clean & jerk records fall in the superheavyweight class.
And before you click away, the whole thing is dubbed in English.
The Bulgarians dominated the competition, winning 26 medals on the men’s side and 16 medals on the women’s side. Quick history note: 1987 was the first year of the Women’s World Weightlifting Championships. The men’s competition was held in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, while the women’s portion was held in Daytona Beach, Florida.
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Bulgaria competed with a much smaller squad, and rumor has it the change was due to coach fears lifters would be caught for performance enhancers. In fact, two Bulgarians who lifted in Seoul (and won their respective weight classes) later had their titles stripped for doping: Mitko Grabnev and Angel Guenchev.
Is “School of Champions” the best documentary as far production, pacing, cinematography, chronology, and narrative arc? Well, no, in fact we may argue it’s lacking on all those points. There are important lifts referenced but not shown, times when the weights seem to go down from one lifter to the next, and dialogue that comes out of context. But when it comes to weightlifting movies, beggars can’t be choosers, and this is perhaps the best look we’ll ever get into a system that produced some historically strong athletes — even if it was only temporary glory.