Weightlifting - Former European champion Cholakov dies at 35

Bulgaria's Velichko Cholakov celebrates his bronze medal in the men's +105 kg weightlifting event at the Athens 2004 Olympics Games August 25, 2004. REUTERS/Andrea Comas RUS/AA

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s former European weightlifting champion Velichko Cholakov, who served a four-year ban for doping, died on Sunday at the age of 35.

A hospital official in the southern town of Smolyan confirmed Cholakov’s death and said the cause would only be known after an autopsy.

Members of Cholakov’s family told local media he had recently been suffering with heart problems.

A number of Bulgarian weightlifters have died at young ages.

Bulgaria’s 2004 Olympic weightlifting champion Milen Dobrev died two years ago at the age of 35, while three-times weightlifting world champion Mihail Petrov passed away at the age of 28 in 1992.

Cholakov was among the 11 members of the Bulgarian team that failed doping tests before the start of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. That led to the withdrawal of the whole team from the Games.

At 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 metres), Cholakov, who also won the silver medal in the over 105 kg-category at the world championships in 2003 and Olympic bronze in Athens a year later, was one of the tallest lifters of all time.

After serving a four-year doping ban, he obtained Azerbaijani citizenship and was set to compete for the oil-rich country at the 2012 Olympics in London but withdrew before the competition due to health issues.

Bulgarian weightlifters have won 12 Olympic titles and 36 medals in total, making it one of the most successful Olympic sports in the country.

Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Toby Davis