National

A Bulgarian love story: Athletes tied the knot at 1964 Tokyo Games in grand style

by Imogen Pullan

Kyodo

The morning before the closing ceremony of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, two young Bulgarian athletes waited nervously in the athletes village in Yoyogi Park.

Expecting only to compete for their country, they had suddenly found themselves about to get married in the world’s first wedding to be held inside an athletes village.

“There have now been 17 marriages during the Olympics. All 16 others have ended in divorce,” said Nikolai Prodanov, 78, bursting into laughter in his apartment in Sofia. “At least we haven’t got divorced yet!”

After 53 years of marriage to his wife, Diana Yorgova, two daughters and four grandchildren, divorce seems unlikely to be in the cards.

Nikolai was 24 and a promising young gymnast with one Olympic Games and a World Students Championships already under his belt when he landed in Tokyo as part of the Bulgarian delegation.

With him was 21-year-old Diana, ready to compete for Bulgaria in her first-ever Olympic long-jump competition.

Their marriage was no case of love at first sight, but of a four-year friendship that slowly blossomed into romance as they got to know each other as part of Bulgaria’s athlete circle.

“I kept on trying to get her to kiss me but she always refused,” Nikolai recalled. “Until one day she told me she had finally got the feeling I was serious about her.”

The couple gained the blessing of their parents before leaving for Japan to marry on Nikolai’s birthday in May 1965, and impending nuptials were far from Diana’s mind as she prepared for competition.

“My mission was the games, not marriage,” Diana said. “He was always trying to meet up with me, but I would tell him I was here to focus only on the long jump.”

Avoiding Nikolai’s advances was made easier by the tall wire fence that had been erected between the men’s and women’s accommodations to prevent any untoward behavior.

While Nikolai did not manage to get past either the fence or the preliminary stages for the men’s pommel horse, Diana leaped her way to sixth in the women’s long-jump finals.

The couple bought rings with Diana’s prize money for their ceremony back in Bulgaria, which they showed to the Bulgarian ambassador.

But the next day, they were surprised to learn the Japanese Olympic Committee and Bulgarian Olympic attache had arranged a secret wedding for them.

“Diana was shocked. She was informed practically at the last moment,” said the attache, Todor Dichev, who went on to become a family friend and ambassador to Japan.

As a young, ambitious member of the diplomatic corps, Dichev was thrilled about the marriage and its implications for raising the profile of Bulgaria — at the time a little-known Soviet Bloc country — on the world stage.

“People all over the world were writing about this marriage between two Bulgarians,” he told Kyodo News. “Before the wedding, many people didn’t even know the country existed.”

Held on Oct. 23, 1964, the ceremony was attended by some of the world’s most famous athletes and sporting dignitaries, including Avery Brundage, who was then president of the International Olympic Committee.

The wedding was like a dream, said Diana, if vastly different from what she had previously imagined.

Entering the hall to thunderous applause, the ceremony was conducted in front of the Olympic flag in the traditional Japanese style by a Shinto priest, and made headlines around the world.

The couple were then whisked away to Kyoto for a brief one-day honeymoon before returning to Tokyo for the Olympics closing ceremony, and shortly after returned to Bulgaria with the rest of their delegation.

Upon returning home they had another wedding ceremony at one of Sofia’s grandest hotels in the Bulgarian tradition, attended by friends and family.

Asked about her memories of the Tokyo Olympics, Diana retrieves boxes from which she removes carefully preserved souvenirs from her time in Japan, such as traditional Japanese dolls and a musical powder box.

Every morning when she returned to her room in the athletes village, she would find small gifts and fresh flowers from well-wishers placed on her bed, many of which she cherishes today.

“Japan feels like a second home to me. It was the country of my first Olympic Games, I had the chance to meet my sporting heroes there, and all the Japanese people were so kind to me,” she said.

After having two daughters, Diana later went on to win a silver medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, while Nikolai became vice president of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee and worked in sports administration.

Bulgaria has not fared as well in the Olympics since its transition to democracy in 1989, which put a stop to generous state funding for elite sports programs. In comparison with the 10 medals won at the 1964 Games, including three gold medals, Bulgaria took only three medals at each of the last two Olympics.

July 24 marked the two-year countdown until the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Games. Although the couple say they are too old to return to Tokyo, they are looking forward to watching the action on television, and would be delighted for any Bulgarian athlete who wins a medal.

“I know the atmosphere will be unbelievable,” Diana said. “It will be magical.”