Even as little Naim Suleymanoglu stood on the wooden lifting platform at the Olympic Weightlifting Gymnasium shortly before putting on one of the most fabulous displays of lifting the Games have ever seen—and giving Turkey its first gold medal in the sport—his thoughts were with his parents and two brothers. Though Naim had defected from Bulgaria in December 1986, his family was still trapped there. "Since leaving I have not seen any of them," Suleymanoglu (pronounced Soo-lay-MAHN-oo-loo), 21, would say later. "I have only been able to talk to them a few times, very briefly, on the telephone, and I can't say much because the calls are monitored by the security police."
Weightlifting is the sport at which Bulgaria is most successful. Its lifters had won four gold medals before the country's weightlifting federation withdrew the team from the Games because two of the winners were stripped of their medals for testing positive for taking a diuretic. Suleymanoglu hoped that his former countrymen would be watching him on TV as he faced his friend and former teammate, Stefan Topurov of Bulgaria, in the 132¼-pound division. Their battle figured to be one of the highlights of the Games.
Oddly enough, Suleymanoglu was also hoping to erase his name—or what once was his name—from the record book. He was born in Bulgaria as Naim Suleimanov, and he set his first world records under that name as a 15-year-old prodigy in 1982. In late 1984, however, as part of a government-decreed assimilation campaign against Bulgaria's Turkish minority, the Suleimanovs, who are of Turkish descent, were forced to change their name to a more Bulgarian variation, Shalamanov. Naim considered that to be the ultimate form of oppression.
Under the name Shalamanov, he established world records in the clean and jerk (414¼ pounds) and total lift (738½) that stood until last week. Under that name he also vowed to seek freedom in another land. He defected while at a meet in Melbourne and was flown to Ankara in the private jet of Turkish prime minister Turgut Ozal, an avid sports fan. Pocket Hercules immediately became a national hero in Turkey and changed his name to its most Turkish form: Suleymanoglu.
October 2, 1988
Whether he would be allowed to compete in Seoul was doubtful for a while because of an Olympic rule barring athletes from participating in the Games for three years after they have changed nationalities. But in May the Bulgarians consented to a waiver of the rule (after the Turks paid them $1 million), and Suleymanoglu was permitted to perform. So on the night of Sept. 20 more than 100 chanting, flag-waving Turks packed into one section of the stands of the weightlifting arena, waiting for Pocket Hercules to bring their nation glory.
Suleymanoglu had a tough foe in Topurov. Indeed, on his third and final lift in the snatch Topurov set an Olympic record of 303 pounds. Pocket Hercules, who had passed his turn until this point, responded by asking that the bar be loaded with 319½ pounds. He nonchalantly tossed up the weight and then requested a world record 331¾ pounds. He raised that even more easily, smiling as he held the bar overhead.
The Turkish fans were jubilant. They became even more so when Suleymanoglu hoisted 336 pounds on his final snatch, for his second world record of the evening. "I get my strength from 55 million Turks who believe in me," said Suleymanoglu afterward.
The records kept falling. On his second attempt in the clean and jerk, he hoisted 415½ pounds to set not only that record but also the world total-lift mark with 748½ pounds. On his third clean and jerk he improved the record to 418¾ pounds and the total-lift standard to 755. In one night Pocket Hercules had set six world records.
His total put him 66¼ pounds ahead of silver medalist Topurov and shattered the Olympic record by 115¾ pounds. Suleymanoglu's performance would have won him the silver medal in the heavyweight division in the 1960 Games, and in 1956 it would have earned him a victory over Olympic heavyweight champ Paul Anderson, who weighed more than 300 pounds and stood 5'10". Suleymanoglu now has broken world records on 33 occasions.
Turkish fans kissed one another, and Pocket Hercules was hugged by everyone he met, even South Korean security guards. As he waited to return to Ankara on Friday in Ozal's jet, Suleymanoglu was still thinking of his family in Bulgaria. He was teary-eyed as he spoke of how his parents and brothers have once again been forced to change their names, this time to Chacamanov.
"I have done the greatest a man can do in sport," he said, "but my thoughts are not on the gold medal or the world records. My thoughts are with my family. My deepest hope is that they can join me in Turkey."