It was a strange but perfect match: Bulgaria had a surfeit of world-class weightlifters but little money to help them train. Oil-rich Qatar had lots of money but few talented lifters. So, in one of the oddest deals in sports history, Qatar, a Persian Gulf emirate, agreed last year to pay the Bulgarian weightlifting federation $1 million for eight lifters, who were given Qatarian passports, Arabic names and a new lease on Olympic life.
"They were thought of as the second team," Bulgarian sportswriter Gerge Banov says of the lifters who agreed to become Qatarians. Not anymore. A few could contend for medals, most notably 170-pounder Saelem Nayef Badr (left), the former Petar Tanev, who won two golds for Qatar at the '99 worlds in Athens. "You realize that the bird perches on your shoulder only once in a lifetime, and you've got to seize the moment," says Badr of his opportunity to become a Qatarian.
The new Q's still train mostly in Bulgaria, and Badr says they're not treated lavishly when in Qatar. But they make twice as much per month as they did in Bulgaria ($400 compared to $200). Badr got a $40,000 bonus for winning at worlds, eight times what he would've been paid by his native country.
Badr has a, well, modern attitude toward the arrangement. "I would've loved to hear the Bulgarian anthem when I won in Athens," he says, "but I was not sad, because winning is your own achievement. You live to see yourself up there, at the top of the world."