Still smiling 56 years later: the Bulgarian Olympians who married at Tokyo 1964

From sipping sake to being married by a representative of the Japanese Imperial Court and witnessed by the world’s press, long jumper Diana Yorgova and gymnast Nikola Prodanov’s wedding was not how they had imagined it. But more than half-a-century after celebrating the first Olympic marriage, the Bulgarian couple continue to count their blessings.

long jumper Diana Yorgova and gymnast Nikola Prodanov’s wedding

Diana Yorgova and Nikola Prodanov have been back to Japan just once between them since the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964, but still few days pass without the pair finding their minds turning towards their “second homeland”. And on 23 October 2020, the spotlight will shine brighter than ever on the Japanese capital.

“Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Japan marked the beautiful start of our 56-year fairy tale, and have remained forever in our hearts,” said Yorgova, who cemented her place in Olympic lore by marrying gymnast Prodanov in the Olympic Village during the Tokyo 1964 Games.

The now 78-year-old reveals that, as a young girl growing up in Bulgaria in the 1940s and 1950s, the “world was the Olympics”. But as she travelled to Tokyo in early October 1964, little did she realise that the Games would come to define not only her sporting life, but her family life too.

Yorgova and Prodanov had met as youngsters on the high-performance Bulgarian sporting circuit. They had been friends for more than four years before romance blossomed and plans were in place to tie the knot after the 1964 Olympic Games. In fact, Yorgova reveals they had even chosen a date: “26 May [1965], his birthday”.

Bulgarian Gymnastics Federation

The Bulgarian ambassador to Japan had other ideas. Having heard rumours that there was a young, in-love sporting couple on his team, he invited them to the official residence and popped the question: would they marry in the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club?

The answer was yes, although, as Yorgova admits, her emotions were mixed.

“I was very worried because I had imagined this day with our dearest ones – our parents, relatives and friends – but they were so far away,” she said. “Therefore, I was not only excited, but also secretly sad.

“We could not contact our parents to inform them and ask for their blessing. They were therefore also surprised to hear the news from the radio, television and see it in the newspapers.”

long jumper Diana Yorgova and gymnast Nikola Prodanov’s wedding Bulgarian Gymnastics Federation

That worry aside, everything was set. They had both completed their sporting commitments, with Yorgova giving her parents more than enough to be delighted about. Despite entering the competition largely under the radar, the then 22-year-old, who would go on to win silver at the Munich 1972 Games, flew out to 6.24m to grab sixth place.

Seeing my name among those of the long jump finalists on the stadium light board, I realised that my wish had come true. Diana Yorgova

“It was a truly unforgettable moment. I soared on the wings of joy because I had felt the satisfaction of the task accomplished and the promise kept, the one I had given to myself, my coach, my team and my country.”

Prodanov, who also competed at the Rome 1960 Games, failed to qualify for the gymnastics finals but, high on love, the pair decided to embrace the wonder of a wedding in the middle of an Olympic Games. It may have been 56 years ago, but hearing Yorgova talk about the experience now, it could have been 56 minutes ago:

“Wearing the most beautiful lace dress, white as snow, with white gloves, veil and shoes, I saw Nikola in his first tuxedo in life. We really felt like a fairy-tale princess and prince,” she said. “The hall was packed with people, some of the most distinguished athletes, their coaches and teams, official guests and journalists. The officiant was the representative of the Imperial Court, Mr Kyogi-san, an incredible honour for us. The ceremony took place in front of the Olympic flag and a large poster of the Olympic flame, under the accompaniment of an ancient Shinto melody – a song of blessing.

“We took a sip of sake, we exchanged our wedding vows and rings, we cut and tasted an amazingly beautiful cake, the most delicious of our lives, on five levels and with our names next to the five Olympic rings. And after a Rachenitsa, a traditional Bulgarian couple’s dance, and a folk dance with the guests, we set off by bullet train to the industrial giant Osaka and the ancient capital Kyoto for our day-long honeymoon.”

long jumper Diana Yorgova and gymnast Nikola Prodanov’s wedding Bulgarian Gymnastics Federation

The honeymoon was one day only because the couple of the moment were undoubtedly needed back in Tokyo to star in the Closing Ceremony. By then they had got used to being the centre of attention.

“Nikola and I felt captivated by their delicate presence, their care and attention, their true-hearted joy and enthusiasm during each of our meetings, even occasionally to take pictures, to say a few words to each other, to sign autographs or exchange souvenirs,” Yorgova explained. “Throughout our honeymoon by train and our stay in Osaka and Kyoto, we were identified, greeted and blessed everywhere. Not being used to such an attention and such a warm and cordial welcome, to cheerful cries and so many smiling faces, we felt touched and moved, overjoyed, ready to fly on the wings of happiness.”

The pair, who also celebrated in Sofia on their return to Bulgaria, have remained inseparable ever since. They had two daughters, one of whom was born before her mother jumped 6.77m to win Olympic silver in 1972, and they are now the proud grandparents of four. The key to such a long, happy marriage depends on who you talk to.

Getty Images

For Yorgova it is all about common interest in music, poetry, architecture and travel, but in Prodanov’s eyes it is a little more prosaic.

“The secret is sport,” he said. “Sport has taught us to have strict discipline and morality and to make compromises in human relationships.”

Either way, the couple will be avidly tuning in to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, encouraging yet more memories to flood back.

“This is where our happy family story began and it’s lasted for 56 years yet,” Prodanov said. “The history, morality and spirit of the great Japanese nation have always been examples to follow in the education and behavior of our whole family.”

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