Bulgarian sumo wrestler Kotooshu became the first European to win the prestigious Summer Grand Tournament in Tokyo last month and is now a step closer to attaining his sport's highest rank.
(Guardian, AP, SNA - 26/05/08; Daily Yomiuri - 25/05/08; AFP, Sofia Echo - 24/05/08)
Bulgarian sumo wrestler Kotooshu receives the trophy after winning the Summer Grand Tournament last month in Tokyo. [Getty Images]
Less than six years after his debut in sumo wrestling, Bulgarian wrestler Kotooshu became the first European to win the Summer Grand Tournament in Tokyo and capture the Emperor's Cup, the biggest prize in the ancient sport.
"Finally, I made it," Kotooshu, born Kaloyan Mahlyanov, told reporters after he clinched the title a day before his final match on May 25th. "I can't find (the) right words to express my feelings."
The 25-year-old Bulgarian triumphed with a record 14 wins over 15 days, besting the two highest-ranked participants in the event, Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu and Hakuho. Kotooshu suffered only one defeat -- by the lower-ranked Aminishiki.
The wrestler's proud father, Stefan, was in Tokyo to watch. Sitting in the crowded Kokugikan stadium, he waved a small Bulgarian flag and shook hands with dozens of other spectators.
Back in his hometown of Dzhulyunitsa, Kotooshu's mother did not miss a match on TV, either. She and her friends are now experts of sorts on sumo, according to one of the friends.
Kotooshu has admirers in high places. Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov sent off a congratulatory letter to the 202-cm-tall athlete, an EU Goodwill Ambassador since last year. Former French President Jacques Chirac, reportedly one of Kotooshu's biggest fans, dined with the Bulgarian wrestler in Japan a few years ago.
At the age of 14, Kotooshu became a Greco-Roman wrestler. He won a European championship but switched to sumo, making his debut in November 2002.
Kotooshu won promotion to ozeki, the second-highest category in sumo, in January 2006. Clinching the title in Tokyo cleared the path for his promotion to yokozuna after an injury-hampered two years. A victory at next month's Grand Tournament in Nagoya would significantly strengthen Kotooshu's chances of advancement.
His manager warned the achievement of that goal would require further effort. Sadogatake said, "If he doesn't keep this up and become mentally stronger, he won't be able to aim for higher things."
Other Balkan athletes have excelled in similar sports in recent years.
The list includes two super-middleweight boxers -- Albania's Kreshnik Qato, a world and Eastern European champion, and Romania's Lucian Bute, who ranked fourth in his category in the World Boxing Federation's world ratings for March 2008.
Another popular fighter is former Croatian police officer turned kickboxer and mixed martial artist Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. His Romanian colleague Stefan Cojocnean set the world record at the 14th kickboxing "Impossibility Challenge" contest in Dachau, Germany, at the end of March.
Turkish taekwondo champions Bahri and Azize Tanrikulu, who are brother and sister, both hope to add Olympic gold medals to their collections in Beijing.
Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey could send up to 15 weightlifters to the Beijing Games in August, in which Turkey's Halil Mutlu hopes to win his fourth successive Olympic gold medal.
(Ayhan Simsek, Manjola Hala and Alina Bandila contributed to this report.)