There was an air of hushed excitement at the 66th European weightlifting championships in Cardiff, Wales, last week as lifters and fans awaited the appearance of the Pocket Hercules. Rumor had it that the extraordinary little man—a squarish, 5-foot, 20-year-old with one tale of political derring-do, two former names and 27 world records to his credit—had been sequestered in a local hotel room, protected by the two Turkish secret service men who stayed near him 24 hours a day, every day, wherever he went. This much was known for sure about the Pocket Hercules: He had not been seen outside Turkey in more than 16 months.
This is an article from the May 9, 1988 issue
The anticipation grew. At last, with seven other competitors in the 60-kilogram (132¼-pound) weight class, he walked slowly out from a warmup room and onto the floor of the National Sports Centre. Naim Suleymanoglu (na-EEM soo-lay-MAHN-oo-loo), the Bulgarian-born Pocket Hercules, who's pound for pound the greatest weightlifter in the world, could not hold back a smile. He bathed in the warm applause.
This was Suleymanoglu's first international competition since December 1986, when he sneaked out of a postmeet banquet at the World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, to contact Turkish authorities and request political asylum, which they immediately granted. Suleymanoglu's Bulgarian countrymen were stung by his defection. Bulgarian sports officials at first suggested that Suleymanoglu had been drugged and taken against his will. Turkey replied by assigning the Pocket Hercules two bodyguards to thwart any Bulgarian efforts to kidnap him.
To understand Suleymanoglu's decision to defect—and his rare talent—one must trace his roots. He was born Naim Suleimanov in the tiny Bulgarian mountain village of Ptichar, the son of a 4'7½" mother and a father who stood barely five feet. The family was poor—Naim's father worked as a miner and a farmer—and, as members of Bulgaria's Turkish minority, downtrodden. The Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled Bulgaria, often cruelly, for some 500 years until the turn of this century, and resentment of Turks still runs strong. "We are not allowed to speak our language or practice our religion [Islam]," says Suleymanoglu. "The Bulgarians [have] closed our schools, our mosques."
As a child, the future Pocket Hercules entertained himself by lifting rocks, branches—anything heavy he could find. He was drawn to a nearby weight-lifting center, where, though not even 3'9" tall, the 10-year-old carried the heavy plates around like a man. At 14, after two years in one of Bulgaria's 22 special sports schools, Suleimanov won the world 19-and-under title and—almost unbelievably—came within 5½ pounds of a world combined-lift record. If not for the Eastern-bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984, Suleimanov would have been the overwhelming favorite at the Olympics in the 123½-pound division, at age 16.
In 1984 his life changed. As part of a government-decreed assimilation campaign, Bulgarian Turks were ordered to use Bulgarian versions of their names. Overnight Naim Suleimanov became Naum Shalamanov. "You ask why did I apply for political asylum," he says. "It is because I had to change my name. It was an oppression."
With the help of Turkish friends he had met on a previous trip to Melbourne, Shalamanov seized his first chance to defect. From Australia he flew to London, where the private jet of Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal picked him up and brought him to Ankara. Upon arriving in his new country, Shalamanov knelt and kissed the tarmac. Shalamanov was granted immediate citizenship.
The Pocket Hercules celebrated his freedom by changing his name to its most Turkish variation. Thus Naum Shalamanov became Naim Suleymanoglu. His joy is tempered only by the fact that his parents and two brothers are still in Bulgaria, unable to join him.
Under the International Weightlifting Federation rules, Suleymanoglu's change of citizenship rendered him ineligible for competition for 12 months, ending last December. Now he had come to Cardiff for a dramatic return. The meet would serve as a final preview for this year's Seoul Olympics.
Suleymanoglu's first event was to be the snatch, which calls for a lifter to raise the bar overhead in one continuous motion. Not only would Suleymanoglu attempt to break the world record of 148 kilograms (326¼ pounds) that he had set in Melbourne just a few days before defecting, but he also would be facing his old friend and former teammate, Stefan Topurov of Bulgaria. "I didn't want him to be in the same weight category, because we were always very good friends," Suleymanoglu would say later.
Observing Suleymanoglu from a far edge of the gym was Bulgarian coach Ivan Abadjiev, whose unique training methods had helped both Suleymanoglu and Topurov become world champions. Abadjiev's arduous system involves as many as seven heavy lifting sessions a day and has propelled Bulgaria past the long-dominant Soviets on the international lifting scene, especially in the lighter weight classes. In Cardiff, the Bulgarians would win 12 gold medals to the Soviets' 11 and defeat them in the team point race, 436 to 339. (Poland finished third.) Abadjiev watched Suleymanoglu wistfully but would not talk of his former star pupil.
Suleymanoglu waited in the warmup room until Topurov successfully completed his first two lifts in the snatch. Suleymanoglu then snatched 145 kilos on his first try to match Topurov's best effort of the day. After Topurov failed at 147.5 kilos, Suleymanoglu had the weight increased to 150 kilos, which would be a world record.
Suleymanoglu had already lifted that much weight last December at a nonsanctioned meet in Ankara, where he set four unofficial world marks, including the 150-kilo snatch. The records were not recognized because there had been no drug testing, but Suleymanoglu's feats had left the crowd chanting wildly.
In Cardiff, a small knot of flag-waving Turkish spectators was ready to explode. Such is Suleymanoglu's popularity in his new home that the whole 132¼-pound competition was being shown live on Turkish television. "Every Turkish person thinks Naim is like their son," said the commentator, Ertan Yuce.
Suleymanoglu strode slowly to the weights, eyes so fixed on the bar he seemed almost in a trance. "Suleymanoglu is great not only for what he lifts but how he lifts it," Doug Cooney, a former lifter and NBC's Olympic weightlifting commentator, had said earlier. "He has the ability to electrify an audience. Many will remember [Vasily] Alexeyev, the great Soviet superheavyweight, as having the same quality."
Suleymanoglu gripped the bar, lowered his hips and closed his eyes in meditation. His mouth curled into an O as if he were miming a fish. He looked to the ceiling and—ooof—the bar flashed up over his head. Straining, he rose from a deep crouch until he was standing with the 150 kilos held aloft. The lift was good. The Turkish fans burst into chants and rhythmic clapping. Abadjiev smiled. The Pocket Hercules had become the first man in history to snatch 2½ times his body weight.
Next came the clean and jerk. Suleymanoglu hoisted 180 kilos to win but couldn't lift a potential record of 188.5 kilos. His combined total of 330 kilos nevertheless earned him his third gold medal of the meet and was 2.5 kilos better than the winning total in the next higher weight division, 148¾ pounds.
Suleymanoglu was not the only record setter in Cardiff. In all, seven world marks were established, four of them by the U.S.S.R.'s Yuri Zakharevich, king of the 242½-pound heavyweight class. Zakharevich, 25, who has now broken 33 world records, is himself a remarkable story. In 1983 he dislocated his left elbow during an attempt at a world-record snatch in Budapest and was told he would never lift again. But a doctor in Moscow rebuilt the elbow using synthetic tendons, and Zakharevich came back.
At Cardiff, Zakharevich snatched 203.5 kilos for one world mark, clean-and-jerked 250.5 kilos for another and twice broke the world combined record, first reaching (after IWF adjustments) 450 kilos and then 452.5 kilos. Zakharevich, who jokingly calls himself an "old man" in the increasingly youth-dominated sport, was closely pursued by 18-year-old Ronnie Weller of East Germany and 20-year-old Stefan Botev of Bulgaria, both of whom are expected to challenge for gold medals in Seoul.
Suleymanoglu, however, may not be in Seoul. Under International Olympic Committee rules, he won't be eligible to represent Turkey in Olympic competition until 1989, unless the Bulgarians grant him their permission. Turkish and Bulgarian sports officials were to meet this week in Sofia to discuss the matter, and sources said that in return for their acquiescence, the Bulgarians would demand a large sum of money—perhaps as much as $1 million—and assurances that Suleymanoglu will cease criticizing Bulgaria's treatment of Turks.
"I believe they will say, 'Suleymanoglu can compete, but it will cost you,' " said IWF president Gottfried Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádl. While that is being decided, Suleymanoglu, doubtless the only man ever to set world records under three names, will go back to training in Ankara. "In my opinion he is not only the best lifter of the present time, he is the best lifter of the century." said Sch‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ádl, who added with a grin, "I think he is the best product Bulgaria ever exported."