Naim Suleymanoglu, known as the "Pocket Hercules" because he combined a very small stature with great strength, is the only weightlifter ever to win gold medals in three different Olympics. Born in Kircali, Bulgaria in 1967, Suleymanoglu was the son of very poor parents who were members of that country's oppressed ethnic Turkish minority. His father was a bus driver and zinc miner in the mountain town of Momchilgrad.
"A Back Wide Enough to Play Poker On"
At birth, Suleymanoglu had very short arms and legs, with a long torso. His odd proportions worried his mother. When he began lifting weights as a boy, she worried
that the weights would compress his body even more and make him stop growing. When he was ten years old, he was sent away from his family and to a sports school where he could be trained.
Suleymanoglu eventually grew to his adult height of 4'11" and a weight of 141 pounds, with what Paul Kent called in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser, "a back wide enough to play poker on." These proportions allowed him to lift enormous amounts of weight, far more than many men who were much bigger than he was. In 1982, at the age of 15, he set his first world record. A year later, he became only the second person in history to lift three times his body weight. That year, when he was 16, Suleymanoglu missed the chance to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympics because of the Soviet Union's boycott of the games.
Escapes to Turkey
As part of a campaign to eliminate Turkish culture and identity within their borders, Bulgarian officials closed Turkish mosques and schools, passed laws prohibiting people from speaking Turkish, and ordered all of the country's 900,000 Turks to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Suleymanoglu was ordered to change his name to Naum Shalamanov. The last straw came one day when Communist officials showed up with a television crew and told him to say that he had always been Bulgar, and that the only reason he had a Turkish name was that his ancestors had been forced to adopt one by the Ottoman rulers. He refused, but the next day there was an article in the paper, claiming he had said this. He had never even spoken to the author of the article, much less denied his Turkish heritage.
In response, during a 1986 competition in Australia, he defected from Bulgaria and sought Turkish citizenship. Although athletes who changed citizenship were normally not allowed to compete for their new country until three years had passed, the Turkish government paid Bulgaria $1 million in order to have this ban waived so that Suleymanoglu could compete for Turkey in the 1988 Olympics. It was money well spent. At the Games in Seoul, Korea, Suleymanoglu set six world records, won a gold medal, and even out-lifted the winner of the weight class above his own.
As a Turkish athlete, Suleymanoglu became a national hero in his new country, receiving parades and over 20 houses as a reward for his achievements. According to Pat Forde in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, one million fans showed up at the airport to welcome him home to Turkey after his gold medal. Also, because of the enormous publicity he received, the world became aware of Bulgaria's oppression of Turks. In response to world outcry, Bulgarian officials had to allow Suleymanoglu's parents to emigrate to Turkey, and they also let over 320,000 Turks leave their country and settle in Turkey.
Suleymanoglu quit his sport in 1990 but soon returned to competition. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Suleymanoglu won a second gold medal, making him the most famed athlete in Turkey. According to Alan Abrahamson in the Los Angeles Times, a Turkish television sports director said of Suleymanoglu, "If he comes to a roadblock when he is driving, it is removed for him. If he eats in a restaurant, no one will ask him to pay. If he drives beyond the speed limit, police wave him on ahead."
|1967||Born in Kircali, Bulgaria|
|1977||Sent away from his family to a training school|
|1982||Sets his first world record|
|1984||Misses Olympic Games because of his country's boycott|
|1986||Defects from Bulgaria to Turkey|
|1988||Wins gold medal at Seoul Olympics|
|1990||Retires, but soon returns to competition|
|1992||Wins gold medal at Barcelona Olympics|
|1996||Wins gold medal at Atlanta Olympics|
|2000||Competes in Sydney Olympics, but fails on all his attempts to lift|
|2000||Retires from competition|
A Third Gold Medal
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Suleymanoglu battled for the gold medal with Greek lifter Valerios Leonidas. Setting world records one after the other, they had a close competition. Suleymanoglu lifted a world-record 185 kg, and Leonidas beat him with 187.5 kg. Now the pressure was on Suleymanoglu to match Leonidas's lift for the gold.
And he did, tying Leonidas's world record just minutes after it was set. Announcer Lynn Jones said, "You have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history," according to Ken Jones in the London Independent. With this gold medal, Suleymanoglu became the first weightlifter in history to win gold medals at three different Olympics.
Suleymanoglu's Psychological Tactics
Suleymanoglu was known for his showmanship, as well as for his psychological strategy during competitions. According to a writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Suleymanoglu often sat quietly offstage, passing up his turn to lift, while competitors tried to lift huge amounts of weight in order to beat them. When they were exhausted, Suleymanoglu would stride out on stage, ask for more weight to be put on the bar, and then lift it easily, beating everyone.
After winning his third gold medal in Atlanta, Suleymanoglu retired from competition and enjoyed his fame and wealth for a few years; he frequently appeared in Turkish tabloid newspapers, which told scandalous stories about his wild lifestyle. However, in 1999, he decided to make a comeback and compete in the 2000 Olympic Games. He trained for just over a year before the Games, hoping to win an unprecedented fourth gold medal. Only three other athletes had ever won medals in four different Olympics: Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom, American discus thrower Al Oerter, and American long jumper Carl Lewis .
According to Forde, Suleymanoglu said that he thought a gold-medal win at Sydney would be easier than winning gold in Atlanta. "Silver or bronze is nothing for me. I am only satisfied with gold." But in April of 2000, he came in third in the European championships; it was only his second defeat in 16 years.
"Everyone Tries to Be a Champion"
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Suleymanoglu started the final competition with a very heavy weight—145 kg. If he could lift it, this would match his own Olympic record. As Phil Sheridan commented in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "That kind of gamesmanship is standard in weightlifting, as competitors try to psyche each other out." However, he tried to lift the weight three times, and failed all of them. Kent commented that perhaps Suleymanoglu "had bitten off too much for his first lift, not allowing him to settle into a rhythm before attacking the massive weights."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1983||World champion in the snatch|
|1985||World champion in the snatch|
|1985||World champion in the clean-and-jerk|
|1985||World champion in total|
|1986||World champion in the snatch|
|1986||World champion in the clean-and-jerk|
|1986||World champion in total|
|1988||Gold medal, Seoul Olympics|
|1989||World champion in the snatch|
|1989||World champion in the clean-and-jerk|
|1989||World champion in total|
|1991||World champion in the snatch|
|1991||World champion in the clean-and-jerk|
|1991||World champion in total|
|1992||Gold medal, Barcelona Olympics|
|1993||World champion in the snatch|
|1993||World champion in the clean-and-jerk|
|1993||World champion in total|
|1994||World champion in the snatch|
|1994||World champion in the clean-and-jerk|
|1994||World champion in total|
|1995||World champion in the snatch|
|1995||World champion in the clean-and-jerk|
|1995||World champion in total|
|1996||Gold medal, Atlanta Olympics|
Related Biography: Discus Thrower Al Oerter
American discus thrower Al Oerter is one of only three people ever to win gold medals in four different Olympic Games. He won gold in the discus in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968.
Born in Astoria, New York, Oerter was a champion in high school; he set a national prep record of 184 feet, 2 inches. At the University of Kansas, he set an NCAA record. As a college sophomore, he went to the 1956 Olympics. Although he was ranked sixth in the world, he was not expected to win. He set a personal best and an Olympic record, and won gold. In 1960, after receiving advice from teammate Richard Babka, he threw a winning distance, winning gold, and Babka took the silver.
On May 18, 1962, Oerter set a world record by hurling the discus 200 feet five inches. He was the first person to throw it over 200 feet, and he soon bettered his record with a throw of 204-10. He would continue to beat his own record, eventually throwing 212-6.
In 1964 he battled a rib injury but still set an Olympic record of 200 1/2, winning a third gold medal. He won his fourth gold at the 1968 Olympics, despite more injuries, with an Olympic record throw of 121-6.
Oerter retired from competition in 1969, but in 1980 was still good enough to qualify as an alternate on the Olympic team. But because the United States boycotted the Olympics that year, he was unable to compete, and missed his chance for a fifth gold medal.
In the Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Oerter explained why he liked the discus: "I like the beauty, the grace, and the movement. I can feel myself through the throw and can feel the discus in flight." Oerter is a member of the U.S Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame.
After his last attempt, Suleymanoglu said, "Thank you, goodnight, it's over," according to Jeff Dunne in the Adelaide Advertiser. Duncan noted that Croatian weightlifter Nikolay Pechalov, who beat Suleymanoglu and took the gold, said, "Naim is still the greatest weightlifter on the planet." Suleymanoglu said, according to Jones, "That's for others to decide. I am human. Everybody makes failure. Everyone tries to be a champion."
Where Is He Now?
Although he no longer competes, Suleymanoglu remains active on behalf of Turkish weightlifting. In November of 2002, he met Iranian weightlifter Hossein Rezazadeh, current holder of the "Strongest Man in the World" title, and invited him to leave Iran, become a Turkish citizen, and compete for Turkey in the 2004 Olympics. As inducements, he offered Rezazadeh $10 million, as well as housing, expensive cars, and other gifts. According to a report in the Iranian Payvand.com, Rezazadeh refused, saying "I am an Iranian and love my country and people."
Abrahamson, Ann, "Hercules Can't Pocket This One," Los Angeles Times, (September 18, 2000): U8.
Clarey, Christopher, "Naim Suleymanoglu," International Herald Tribune, (September 15, 2000): 31.
Dunne, Jeff, "Hercules Crashes," Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), (September 18, 2000): L13.
Forde, Pat, "A Legend Crumbles Suddenly and Sadly," Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), (September 18, 2000): 1C.
Jones, Ken, "Turkey's Flame Lit by 'The Greatest' Olympic Games," Independent (London, England), (July 24, 1996): SS12.
Kent, Paul, "Weight of Expectation Sinks Turk," Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), (September 18, 2000): L13.
Neff, Craig, "Heavy Burdens," Sports Illustrated, (October 3, 1988): 68.
Neff, Craig, "Heroic and Herculean," Sports Illustrated, (May 9, 1988): 42.
Sheridan, Phil, "No Fourth Gold for Pocket Hercules," Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, (September 17, 2000): K2353.
Smith, Jerry, "The Weight of the World," Sports Illustrated, (July 22, 1992): 130.
Sullivan, Jerry, "Tiny Turk Takes Record Third Gold," Buffalo News, (July 23, 1996): B5.
"Two Legends of Their Sport Retire," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, (January 3, 1997): E3.
"Weightlifter Diplomacy," Economist, (May 7, 1988): 49.
"Suleymanoglu Offers Rezazadeh Turkish Citizenship," Payvand.com, http://www.payvand.com (January 27, 2003).
Sketch by Kelly Winters