‘Pocket Hercules,’ Olympic weightlifting legend, dies at 50 – OlympicTalk

Dominant force

Such was Suleymanoglu’s dominance in his division, he went undefeated for eight-and-a-half years. But at the 1992 European Championships he was beaten by Nikolay Peshalov of Bulgaria. Three months later, at the Barcelona Games, Suleymanoglu reasserted his dominance and beat his rival by 15kg.

Legendary weightlifter Süleymanoğlu fights for life

Multiple World and Olympic weightlifting champion Turkey’s Naim Süleymanoğlu has been placed into intensive care on Monday due to a liver failure. He was taken to Bakırköy Dr. Sadi Konuk Research and Training Hospital. Mehmet Emin Güneş, the hospital’s head physician said yesterday, «Naim Süleymaonğlu has already been treated in our hospital for a while. But we put him into intensive care two days ago due to chronical liver failure. As of this morning, he regained consciousness. He can answer our questions.»

A real legend in world weightlifting, Naim Süleymanoğlu was born in Bulgaria in 1967. But as ethnic Turks were persecuted and discriminated against in Bulgaria, Süleymanoğlu defected to Turkey at the age of 19.

His achievements in the Olympics games is a heroic tale of determination and sportsmanship. The Seoul Games in 1988, saw the birth of a superstar as Süleymanoğlu set six world records, won a gold medal, and even out-lifted the winner of the weight class above his own. His Seoul successes helped him become a global star. In Turkey, he became a cult hero. He was nicknamed «The Pocket Hercules» due to his small stature of 1.47 meter.

He was the first and only weightlifter to have snatched 2.5 times his body weight and is the second of only seven lifters to clean and jerk three times his own body weight. Süleymanoğlu is the only weightlifter to clean and jerk 10 kilograms more than triple his bodyweight. He is the only weightlifter in history ever to win gold medals in three different Olympics.

Süleymanoğlu life story is comparable to that of a Hollywood movie. Born into a poor family in Kircaali, Bulgaria in 1967, Süleymanoğlu faced discrimination like most others from the country’s oppressed ethnic Turkish minority. The son of a bus driver, he had very short arms and legs, with a long torso at birth. His mother was worried about his odd proportions. She got even more worried when he began lifting weights as a young boy. She feared that his growth would suffer.

Eventually, at the age of 10, he was sent to a sports school where he could train. Süleymanoğlu first showed the glimpses of his talent when he set his first world record at the age of 16. However, he missed out on the chance to participate in his first Olympics in 1984 as Bulgaria boycotted the Games in Los Angeles. After the 1984 Games, the communist regime in Bulgaria ordered people from the minority Turkish community to adopt Bulgarian names and this was when Süleymanoğlu managed to flee the country and entered Turkey. After applying for Turkish citizenship, he changed his name from Suleymanov to Süleymanoğlu. He was cleared to represent Turkey at the 1988 Games after the government paid Bulgaria $1 million to have his ban lifted. After his historic display in Seoul, he retired at the age of 22 with a World Championship gold medal in his pocket. But he came out of retirement to win two more Olympic gold medals in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996).

His herculean effort to win the gold in Atlanta will remain etched in the memory of those who watched the performance. Locked in an epic battle with his great rival Valerios Leonidis of Greece, Süleymanoğlu traded three world record lifts with the Greek in a stadium filled with Turks and Greeks. Süleymanoğlu finally clinched the gold when he lifted 187.5 kilograms and Leonidis failed to lift 190 kilograms. The Greek was reduced to tears and told Süleymanoğlu «Naim, you are the best.» But Süleymanoğlu was quick to comfort his Greek rival saying «No, Valerios we’re both the best.»

«You have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history,» the announcer said.

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Naim Suleymanoglu, 50, Dies; Weight Lifting’s ‘Pocket Hercules’

Naim lifted rocks and tree branches as a child; at 14, he won a 19-and-under world title and was presumably going to compete in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. But Bulgaria joined the Eastern bloc’s boycott, in retaliation for the United States’ refusal to participate in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before.

Repression against ethnic Turks was growing in Bulgaria; one measure required them to use Bulgarian adaptations of their names. So Naim Suleimanov became Naum Shalamonov. And he decided that he had to defect.

After winning the gold medal at a World Cup wrestling tournament in Melbourne, Australia, in 1986, he fled from his Bulgarian minders and went into hiding for four days before appearing at the Turkish consulate in Canberra to announce his intention to defect. He flew first to London and then to Istanbul.

Soon after, he changed his name to a Turkish one: Naim Suleymanoglu.

And the Turkish government paid Bulgaria’s weight-lifting federation $1 million (or more, according to some accounts) to expedite Suleymanoglu’s eligibility to compete for his new country in 1988.

Information on survivors was not available.

Suleymanoglu arrived in Sydney, Australia, in 2000, hoping for a fourth successive Olympic gold medal. But he was 33 and smoking 55 cigarettes a day. And, with some hubris, he made a strategic error, choosing to start in the snatch with a very high weight of 319 pounds.

Three times he tried. And three times the Pocket Hercules failed.

As he left the Sydney Convention Center, he told the news media, “Bye-bye, it’s over.”

Multiple World and Olympic weightlifting champion Naim Süleymanoğlu has died at the age of 50 after having been placed into intensive care at the Ataşehir Memorial in Istanbul, Turkish media said Saturday.

Bulgarian-born Suleymanoğlu was admitted to the Memorial Ataşehir Hospital on Sept. 28 due to liver failure caused by cirrhosis and underwent a liver transplant on Oct. 6. He remained in intensive care following a brain hemorrhage and underwent further surgery on Nov. 11, according to a medical statement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered his condolences in his address at Justice and Development (AK) party’s ordinary congress in his hometown Rize.

The athlete, nicknamed «Pocket Hercules» due to his short stature, became a global star after setting six world records, winning three Olympic gold medals and out lifting the winner of the weight class above him at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

Although Süleymanoğlu set his first world record when he was 15, he missed his first chance at Olympic success in 1984 when Bulgaria joined the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games.

After winning the world championship in 1988, he retired at the age of 22. However, he returned in 1991 to win a second Olympic gold at Barcelona in 1992.

He built up one of the sport’s greatest ever rivalries with Greece’s Valerios Leonidis which was followed avidly by Turkish and Greek communities across the world. Trading world records with Valerios Leonidis, Süleymanoğlu eventually won his third Olympic gold medal.

His funeral will be held on Sunday at Istanbul’s Fatih mosque. His greatest rival Leonidis will also attend the ceremony upon the invitation by the Minister of Youth and Sports, Osman Aşkın Bak.

In 2000 and 2004 he was elected to the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Olympic Order, the highest award of the Olympic movement, in 2001.

Süleymanoğlu is the only weightlifter in history to win gold medals in three different Olympics.

Olympic first

Four years later, Suleymanoglu broke his own world record to win a closely fought contest. This made him the first weightlifter to claim gold at three different Olympic Games. At the 2000 Sydney Games, he bravely tried to make it four but failed.

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