By Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Bulgarian wrestling federation president Valentin Yordanov sent back his Olympic gold medal from the 1996 Atlanta Games on Wednesday, protesting against the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommendation to drop the sport from the Games.
"As a sign of protest I am returning my gold medal, won at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne," seven-times world champion Yordanov wrote in a letter to IOC president Jacques Rogge shown at an emotional news conference.
The wrestling world was shocked last week when the IOC made a surprise recommendation to drop the sport from 2020.
"With this act I express my solidarity with the millions of athletes and fans of our sport who are condemning the recommendation of the IOC," added the 53-year-old, who is also a seven-time European champion.
"Our sport is an integral part of the Olympic movement and one of the foundations of both the ancient and modern Olympics."
Bulgarian wrestlers have won 16 Olympic titles, making wrestling the most successful sport in the Balkan country.
Yordanov, the only wrestler to win 10 medals at world championships, retired in 1996, soon after winning the gold at the Atlanta Games in the freestyle 52-kg category.
Some of Bulgarian wrestling's biggest names expressed their support for Yordanov, saying they believed that the IOC would scrap the plans to drop the sport.
Bulgarian Greco-Roman wrestling national team coach Armen Nazarian, a double Olympic champion, said he was considering going on hunger strike in protest.
Yordanov said that IOC president Rogge had achieved something that many politicians had failed to do.
"He unreservedly united Russia, the United States and Iran for a single cause - saving the sport of wrestling, without which the Olympics will never be the same," Yordanov said.
Contested in the first modern Olympics in 1896 and part of the ancient Games in Olympia, wrestling joins baseball and softball, making a joint bid, martial arts karate and wushu, rollersports, wakeboarding and squash as candidate sports battling for one vacant spot in a revamped programme.
The IOC executive board will meet in St Petersburg in May to determine which of them will be put to the vote in September at the IOC session in Buenos Aires.
Less than a week after the IOC's recommendation, wrestling's world governing body (FILA) president Raphael Martinetti resigned.
Wrestling's surprise exit has been blamed by some on a lack of political support within the IOC executive board, where other sports at risk - including modern pentathlon and taekwondo - had the upper hand with representatives in the 15-member group.
The Bulgarian sports ministry said it would continue to back and fund the domestic wrestling federation regardless of the final IOC decision in September. (Editing by Clare Fallon)