SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria withdrew its national weightlifting team from the Beijing Olympics on Friday after 11 members of the team failed dope tests, the national weightlifting federation said.
The weightlifters, who were hoping to compete for medals at the August Games, were tested during a training camp in the Balkan country on June 8-9, the federation said in a statement.
“The federation decided to withdraw the national weightlifting team — men and women — from the Olympics,” it said.
Sports officials ordered drugs tests for all Bulgarian Olympic-bound athletes after the weightlifting announcement and called for tougher measures against anyone involved in doping.
The failed tests deal a blow to Bulgaria which has been on a mission to clean up weightlifting’s tarnished reputation after a series of doping scandals and suspensions at previous Olympic Games.
The 11 weightlifters — eight men and three women — tested positive for the banned anabolic substance methandienon, the federation said.
Among them were medal hopes Ivan Stoitsov, who took two gold medals at last year’s world championships, and Velichko Cholakov who won bronze at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
“I am shocked,” Stoitsov told state news agency BTA. “I think all this is a provocation. If I get punished, I’ll quit training and do something else.”
The results of the second, B tests are yet to be released.
Injury had already ruled out another Bulgarian medal hope Milen Dobrev, who won the 94-kg title at the Athens Olympics four years ago.
“At the doorstep of the Beijing Games our hopes have been damaged, the work has become meaningless and the tears that were to be shed in front of the national flag are replaced by tears of helplessness,” the federation said.
The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) declined to comment.
The Bulgarian State Sports and Youth Agency and the country’s Olympic committee announced there would be additional tests for all Bulgarian athletes who had qualified for Beijing.
“It’s better to have a smaller number of medals but clean and honest than losing the trust of the sports community and suffer doping scandals,” the agency said in a statement.
It also ordered an investigation into the weightlifting case and said it would propose legal changes to introduce tougher sanctions against anyone involved in doping.
Bulgaria’s reputation hit a low at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where the team were stripped of three golds and sent home in shame following positive drugs tests.
Weightlifting has been the sport worst affected by doping and almost lost its status as an Olympic sport after five doping cases at the 1988 Games.
Only the former Soviet Union has won more medals than Bulgaria in weightlifting’s major championships.
The Bulgarian Olympic Committee said it would meet on Monday to discuss the “doping scandal with the weightlifters.”
The national federation’s statement said the banned substance most likely reached the weightlifters’ bodies through “contaminated” permitted recovery substances, such as proteins.
“Theoretically, taking it through food or ill intentions are not ruled out,” it said.
Earlier this month, the IWF gave two-year suspensions to 11 Greek weightlifters who had tested positive for a banned substance in March.
Editing by Clare Fallon