How a Bulgarian city with decrepit sports base becomes a ‘European city of sports’

The award ceremony. From left to right: Bulgarian commissioner Mariya Gabriel, ACES Presudent Gian-Francesco Lupatelli, Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovachev. [bgathletic.com]

In her latest investigative report for EURACTIV Bulgaria, award-winning reporter Valia Ahchieva focuses on Pazardzhik, a Bulgarian city that was awarded the title of ‘European city of sports’, even though it let its once significant sports base fall into disrepair and then gave it to real estate concessionaires.

At a recent award ceremony in the European Parliament in Brussels, Gian-Francesco Lupatelli – president and founder of the Association of European Capitals and Cities of Sport “ACES Europe” – awarded the title of ‘European City of Sport for 2020’ to Pazardzhik. A large delegation from the Pazardzhik municipality, led by Mayor Todor Popov, received a prize and a banner.

The mayor gave thanks for the prestigious award and described it as a recognition of the efforts of his fellow citizens. He also announced a new policy goal – just one year later, 55% of Pazardzhik residents should be actively involved in sports.

ACES Europe is a private non-governmental organisation based in Brussels which awards the ‘capital of sports’ title every year. Cities apply for the award, pay a fee to the organisation and a special committee from ACES Europe visits them and is supposed to assess on the ground whether the municipality’s policies have made sport an important factor in people’s lives. At least in theory.

The focus is on mass sports. So far, Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Ruse, Burgas and Stara Zagora have been awarded the title in Bulgaria.

Awarding the prize to Pazardzhik should mean the municipality promotes an active lifestyle, develops sports policies, maintains good infrastructure, develops special programs and activities. Again, at least in theory.

Last May a special committee of ACES Europe arrived in Pazardzhik to see with its own eyes.

In one picture, municipality officials and Mayor Popov are showing off the Piskovets tennis courts to the foreign visitors. There are 11 courts in the park, all public property. Only metres away in the photo is the Ilian Iankov Tennis Academy.

Iankov is a former Republican tennis champion, national athlete and chairman of the academy, who has been trying for months to rent two of these courts to teach tennis to children.

He wrote many letters to the mayor, who eventually explained his refusal: a concession procedure has already been launched for these courts.

Documents show that in September 2018, the Pazardzhik City Council adopted an action plan for municipal concessions. And this action plan sealed the fate of the Piskovets tennis courts. The concession envisages the construction of a hotel, restaurant, fitness centre, spa complex, bar, with some of the courts scrapped.

I went to Pazardzhik to interview the mayor just after his return from the Brussels ceremony. I was told he was busy but managed to speak to his deputy, Petar Petrov, and asked him who will benefit from the public funding that usually follows such an award?

The deputy made assurances that the concession is a form of private-public partnership. Municipal counsellor Alexandar Ivanov added that such concessions are “good practice” because, in his words, they are awarded to people with more experience than the municipality in running specific activities.

Pazardzhik Municipality Secretary Rumen Kozhuharov proudly listed the reasons why the city was awarded the title European City of Sport. He mentioned the restoration in the last 10 years of all sports sites used for mass and performance sports: the indoor swimming pool, the sports facilities in Ostrova Park and the city’s football complex .

Which is why I went to film mass sports venues in Pazardzhik.

The city swimming pool, known as “The Balloon”, is a ruin. The construction is a health hazard, especially for children, as it is not fenced. From a public notice that hangs on one pillar, it becomes obvious that it stopped operating in 2007.

The Municipal Sports Complex “Health Zone” was built during the communist era and was intended for mass sports. Today it’s only ruins.

Next, we went to Ostrova Park and its sports facilities.

We saw the track and field. It is so narrow that only one runner at a time can use it.

Finally, I arrived at the city stadium “Lyuben Shkodrov”, the pride of Pazardzhik in communist times. But now the stadium has become a jungle of weeds, in which a solitary woman ran down the runway, pockmarked with holes.

Business with vanity

In Brussels, EURACTIV Bulgaria asked how ACES Europe works. The organisation’s website shows that it has awarded many titles in Italy and Spain, and very few in other countries, such as France or Germany. Could this be because one of the organisation’s chiefs, Secretary-General Hugo Alonso, is Spanish, while the President, Gian-Francesco Lupatelli, is Italian?

Not at all, said Alonso. It’s just that the strong presence in Italy and Spain “is due to the awards having gained prominence there already,” he explained in a written response.

The application fee is €5,000 for a European capital, €1,800 for a European city and €900 for a small town or island.

In response to our request for access to their report on Pazardzhik, he replied that this information was confidential. But what could possibly be confidential about the evaluation of an application, especially since the application has been successful? On the contrary, one would expect the information to be published on their website…

Asked how ACES Europe reacted to the letter from Ilian Iankov, who warned them that the city’s sports complex is earmarked for a 35-year concession to private entrepreneurs who couldn’t care less about sport, Alonso repeated the Pazardzhik municipality’s explanation.

On 29 November 2019, the municipality wrote that it had not decided or discussed the transformation of the Municipal Tennis Complex. But the documents submitted by Yankov clearly indicate that it was decided on 27 September 2018 for the tennis complex to be the subject of a 35-year concession, to be decided in the period 2018 -2020.

It seems that ACES Europe chose to ignore the clear warnings and did not notice that Pazardzhik’s sports base is now merely a communist-era ruin.

Why are there so few European sports cities in France and Germany? Is it because these countries do not develop sports? Or rather, because their city halls are not so stupid as to give their taxpayers money to exploiters of human vanity?

Lavish ceremonies in the European Parliament are easy to organise, as long as there is an MEP to host them. And public funds can be mobilised, especially if there is a Commissioner or MEPs who would like to grace such ceremonies with their presence.

Let the funds flow if they are really intended for sports. But in Pazardzhik, the money is more likely to go to the real estate dealers for whom sport is the least of their concerns.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox}

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