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

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

“I have done the greatest a man can do in sport, but my thoughts are not on the gold medal or the world records,” Suleymanoglu said before flying from Seoul to Ankara on a jet provided by prime minister Turgut Ozal of Turkey, according to Sports Illustrated. “My thoughts are with my family. My deepest hope is that they can join me in Turkey.”


Suleymanoglu celebrating his Olympic win in Seoul. He was internationally known by the time he competed there in 1988.

Associated Press

Bulgaria allowed his parents and two brothers to join him in Turkey about a month later.

He celebrated his victory in West Germany, France and the United States. In Washington, he attended the premiere of the movie “Twins,” where he could stand face to face with its equally diminutive co-star Danny DeVito (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) when the two met.

Suleymanoglu’s victory at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain, was a less dramatic moment. His defection was further in the past. And he did not set any records by defeating a Bulgarian for the gold medal, as he had four years earlier.

“That was 1988,” Suleymanoglu said after his victory. “But now it doesn’t matter at all. Any opponent is the same for me.”

The Turks who cheered for him were nonetheless transfixed by the undersize sports superstar.

“He is all our expectations, someone who can tell our feelings to the whole world,” Levent Bozkurt, a student from Ankara, told The Chicago Tribune. “He is like a leader who shows Turkey’s power, and we just follow him.”

At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Suleymanoglu and his closest rival, Valerios Leonidis of Greece, traded world-record lifts in an epic competition of little men wielding big weights. Their match came down to Leonidis’s final lift. When he failed, Suleymanoglu became the first weight lifter to win gold medals in three successive Olympics.

“You push yourself and he pushes himself harder,” Leonidis said in an interview for “Atlanta’s Olympic Glory” (1997), a documentary directed by Bud Greenspan. “That’s why, when we met before the awards, I said, ‘Naim, you’re the best,’ and he said, ‘No, Valerios, we’re both the best.’ ”

Suleymonaglu was not the only “Pocket Hercules.” Manohar Aich, a 4-foot-11 bodybuilder who won the Mr. Universe competition in 1952, had the same nickname. He died last year, at 103.


Suleymanoglu at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, where he became the first weight lifter to win gold medals in three successive Olympics.

Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Naim Suleimanov was born on Jan. 23, 1967, in Ptichar, Bulgaria. His father, a miner and a farmer, was five feet tall. His mother stood 4-foot-7.

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.”

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