all so static, this sport, so much more precise than the others. There was the man. There was the iron. There was the medal for the man who raised the most iron over his head. No wind nor rain could affect it, no crowd nor stadium, no referee's blunder nor shift of momentum nor. . . .
He pushed out his bottom lip that day four years ago in Seoul and blew the hair off his forehead as a teenage girl might while she is leaning over an algebra problem. Slowly he walked toward a bar loaded to 418¾ pounds. He weighed 132 pounds and stood 4'11".
He didn't pace or take deep breaths or grit his teeth as other lifters did. He had no need to. At 15 he had become a world-record holder—unheard of in his sport for one so young. At 16 he had become the second man in history to lift three times his body weight, and he was the overwhelming favorite to sweep the gold medals in the 123½-pound division at the '84 Olympics until Bulgaria announced its boycott. Since then, he had set the world record and reset it dozens of times. "His first lift," his former coach would say, "he wins the competition. His second lift, he breaks the world record. His third lift . . . he does not need his third lift."
July 21, 1992
And yet on this day in 1988 life in Turkey, the country to which he had defected two years earlier, stopped. No desks were manned. No streets had people. No planes left their gates. A nation leaned toward its televisions and fell silent, to observe the matter of fact.
His eyes closed as he squatted over the bar. His feet rocked, heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe. His mouth opened as if to scream No! at what his body was about to do, but no sound came forth. The first explosion of power in his hips and thighs sent the weight up to his shoulders. The second explosion drove it over his head.
His arms trembled. His elbows locked. The judges nodded yes. In the cities of Turkey, men flooded the streets and cried. In the villages they began choosing the lambs they would slay in his name.
The matter of fact was finished. Now began the trial that would make Naim Suleymanoglu pace and grit his teeth for the next four years: How could history's greatest weightlifter lay the weight down?
says, he imagined the bar as a lover from whom he had long been separated. By hoisting it over his head, all the distance and time between him and her would disappear. Finally, he would have love. It was more than metaphor for him.
He had left his family at 10 and gone away to a sports school to develop his enormous talent. His defection to Turkey, at 19, had meant losing his family once more, and his girlfriend as well.
And so, after that final lift in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, he did something that had a significance few understood. He kissed the bar. He had just finished setting and resetting Olympic records nine times and world records six times in one day. His total for the two events—the snatch and the clean and jerk—was 66¼ pounds more than the weight achieved by the silver medalist, Stefan Topurov of Bulgaria, and 115½ pounds beyond the previous Olympic record.
Within a few weeks, as a result of this monstrous display of strength before the world's eyes, Bulgaria would be pressured to let his parents immigrate to Turkey, allowing him to see them for the first time in two years. The light he shone upon the Bulgarians' repression of their Turkish minority would compel them to permit more than 320,000 other Bulgarian Turks to surge over the border into Turkey soon thereafter. Gold coins worth $34,000 would be dropped into Suleymanoglu's hands by a Turkish bank, and the number of apartments he owned—rewards from the government, rich individuals and a newspaper fund-raising campaign—would rise to 10. He had won wealth, his family's release, his people's freedom and more love than he could ever have dreamed of squeezing and lifting: the adoration of 55 million Turks. There was nothing more that a man and a bar and a set of plastic-encased iron disks could do, so he kissed the bar goodbye: The job was done, he was through.
He made plans to buy a country house, for the days when Ankara became too confining. He would get his university degree, perhaps keep one foot in weightlifting as an ambassador or a part-time coach and another in the business world, but there was no rush to decide. He was 21, rich and Turkey's most hungered-for bachelor. His life had been shorn of its childhood and adolescence, but for manhood, at last, he had time.
After all, he thought, in a free country a man was just as free not to do something as he was to do it. He did live in a free country now, right?
wait. A dozen of them, scarred and scrawny, prowl the hard dirt outside the Turkish national weightlifting team's cafeteria in Ankara, hoping that one of the 14 thick men spilling out of the door will toss them a leftover scrap from his lunch tray. Winter has come to Turkey. More than three years have passed since the Olympics in Seoul.
In a building on the other side of the parking lot, a 15th member of the team, one who can afford the 30,000 or 35,000 Turkish lira ($5 or $6) it costs to dine under the care of the black-suited waiters at the Turkish Sports Writers' Association restaurant, leaves his table and ducks into the haze of cigarette smoke and the din of shouting over soccer and politics at the adjacent sportswriters' cafe. A bodyguard follows at his heels.
He sits at a table there each day, the quietest man in the room and one of the cleverest, drinking tea and playing a game with dotted white tiles named Okey. He plays for an hour or two, smokes five or six cigarettes, wins 20,000 or 30,000 lira. When the sun starts going down, Suleymanoglu walks outside, steps into his Mercedes and drives with his bodyguard a few hundred feet across the parking lot to the weightlifting hall.
The national coach coaches the other lifters. No one coaches Suleymanoglu. No one asks him why he wasn't at the morning workout session or what time he'll show up tomorrow. Beneath a corrugated roof and sickly fluorescent light, surrounded by exposed pipes, flaking paint and a crimson Turkish flag, the others watch him from the corners of their eyes as he lifts. No one seems to have a precise idea of why he retired from the sport in 1990 or why he came back one year later. No one knows what he can possibly prove by returning for the '92 Games in Barcelona, what fuel he can find that won't seem like sump water next to that which drove him in Seoul.
"Bulgaria was a closed box," he says. "I escaped it." But now, at 24, he finds himself inside a second box, one that he has twice attempted to break out of and failed. He finishes his workout in two hours and steps out of the weightlifting hall into the chilled night. The tomcats look up at him. He surveys the parking lot. A few weeks earlier a teenage boy poked his head into Suleymanoglu's car window for cigarettes, realized who the driver was and cried, "Naimcim ['My dear Naim'], if ever there is anyone who says something bad to you, just show him to me, and I will gouge out his eyes! Naimcim, let my soul be sacrificed for you!"
The bodyguard follows him into his Mercedes and accompanies him back to his apartment, where the gold medals dangle from the knobs of the china hutch and the photographs of him with presidents abound. It is dawning on him. This box will require as much strength and will to escape from as the first.
waiting for him the moment he stepped off the Turkish prime minister's private jet that had whisked him home from Seoul, after every minister of the Turkish government had fallen upon him to kiss both his cheeks, and Prime-Minister Turgut Ozal had puckered up a half dozen times. They necklaced him in two wreaths of roses, led him up a ladder onto the roof of a bus and into a canvas-enclosed rectangle painted with the words: KUCUK DEV ADAM ("Little Big Man").
In this box atop the bus he would travel from the airport to the city's main plaza, a 17-mile trip that normally took 20 minutes—unless there were one million people in the way. The Turkish dancers writhed and reeled in native costume around the bus. A band blared battle songs from Turkey's war for independence from Greece. People mounted walls and trees and roofs to see him, shoved past gun-toting soldiers to touch him, chanted "Turkiye! Turkiye! Turkiye!" Every few minutes, along the shoulder of the road, Suleymanoglu would see another butcher knife jiggle, another white fleece turn red, another lamb sacrificed and offered to the poor in honor of Little Big Man.
No one in Turkish history—politician, prophet, warrior, athlete—had ever brought out the masses as Suleymanoglu did that day. Turkey is a country still teetering between East and West, Islam and secularism, medieval and modern, a land still in search of itself. BMWs flash past donkey-pulled carts, men in three-piece suits brush by peasants hunched beneath sacks of onions and chestnuts. Lean men squat behind huge, ornate brass shoe-shine kits covered with Scotch-taped color pictures of lingerie-clad women clipped from the daily newspapers. Kemal Atatürk, who in 1919 led the war of liberation against the Greeks and Allied occupied forces, was able to blow away the dust and cobwebs of centuries when he founded the republic upon the rubble of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. He was able to pry the imams' fingers off the reins of daily life, banish the fez, the turban and the Arabic alphabet. But if holy men, sultans and generals were no longer to be worshiped, who was? Neither he nor his successors could present the people with a scientist, an artist, an entrepreneur or a sportsman who was dominant upon the world stage and say, "This is the new Turk. Look what he can do"—until the daySuleymanoglu, out of thin air, appeared.
He had already become a regular dinner guest at the home of Ozal—the man who was then prime minister of Turkey and now serves as its president—as well as buddies with Ozal's son and nephew. Now Ozal announced that a new sports complex in Izmir, on the Aegean coast, would be named after Suleymanoglu, along with a sports academy in Malatya, deep in Turkey's interior. The bus carrying the box and the New Turk slowly moved toward the city. "God save you, Naim!" the people cried.
When the bus reached Kizilay Plaza, the heart of Ankara, Suleymanoglu's arms ached more from four hours of waving than they had from the world-record lifts. He stepped before the microphone and a national television audience. "These are not my gold medals," he declared. "These are the Turkish people's medals. I owe all of my success to you!"
The crowd's roar filled his ears. It was the perfect thing for a symbol to say. And the worst thing for a man.
a wisp of smiling silence, still wears the balloon pants and tightly tied head scarf of the Turkish peasant. She can leave the Istanbul high-rise apartment Naim has given her and his father, descend in the elevator and walk three blocks to the new shopping mall that sells $80 sneakers, but that will not alter her. Her round face still blushes, her hand still covers her mouth when she speaks to a stranger. She has yet to undo herself of the fear she had when her son began lifting years ago, that the weights would literally compress his body and stop him from growing.
His father, a former bus driver and zinc miner in the mountains of southern Bulgaria, now teaches Istanbul teenagers how to drive, almost always with a little joke on his tongue, a little twinkle in his eye. If Naim had grown up with this mother and this father in their town of Momchilgrad amid the tree-covered Rhodope Mountains, if he had not gone away at 10 to the sports school, perhaps he would have found the exit from the second box by now. Then again, perhaps he would never have become the kind of man that people needed to put in a box at all. "This is what you must remember about Naim," his friends invariably say. "When he was very young, he went away and had to learn to get his love from outside places. He still needs this love from the outside very much."
To be one of the 900,000 Turks who lived in Bulgaria, remnants of the despised Ottoman Empire's expansion that continued until the late 1500s, was to feel small and weak already. To be one whose body refused to grow, whose cowlick stopped at the armpits of his classmates, whose height was the butt of crude jokes by women basketball players . . . that was a doubly bitter puniness. He kept it pinched inside. "A man may cry," went the Bulgarian Turks' saying, "only when he peels an onion." He became friends with the weightlifting bar, lusted silently to be a powerful man. The shiny eyes of a mother or father, the mirrors that other children looked into to see themselves, he would have to seek under the narrowed lids of government-hired coaches.
His ratios were right for the sport. The length of his torso was equal to the length of his legs, the length of his forearms equal to that of his upper arms, two significant advantages for the leverage needed to lift massive weights. His nervous system, too, was perfect. Before a competition once, while his teammates walked and chewed gum to settle their nerves during a layover at the airport in Singapore, Suleymanoglu settled down on a bench and slept so soundly that the coach's camera, which he had been assigned to guard, was stolen off of his neck without his ever stirring.
He knew precisely where he was going. At 12, when friends mocked the way his legs bowed wide, one brick-length apart, he smiled that modest smile and said, "Now I am regional champion, and I walk one brick wide. When I am European champion, I will walk two bricks wide. When I am world champion, it will take three. When I am Olympic champion, I will not walk at all. You will carry me."
But there was one problem. The man whose love the little boy sought most, whose eyes he searched the hardest to see his own reflection, was nicknamed the Butcher. Ivan Abadjiev, the legendary coach who whipped the Bulgarians into the world's weightlifting power of the 1970s and '80s, was a man whose need for discipline and control was so vast that he once had a rebellious pupil dispatched to the military to work from dawn to dusk in a stone quarry. But Suleymanoglu was not to be deterred. He was the first on the team to volunteer when the Butcher offered tickets to his daughter's violin concert, the one who won the right to chauffeur the Butcher when Abadjiev's car broke down. At the center of Suleymanoglu's trophy case was a photograph of the handshake Abadjiev offered Naim when he was 14.
The Butcher held no grudge against Bulgarian Turks. He had grown up in a village full of them, had even lost his mother in childbirth and been breast-fed by a Turk. He only discriminated against those unwilling to lift weights eight hours a day, those unable to make every 10 p.m. curfew, those who showed up a half minute late for the battery of workouts, massages, whirlpool therapies, doctor appointments, meals and meetings.
The coupling of this man and this small boy, these opaque eyes and these hungry eyes, created the greatest weightlifter, pound for pound, in history. If it had been only the two of them, the master doling out his affection in morsels so minuscule that they always kept the pupil pawing for more, the partnership and the medals might have gone on and on. But this was Bulgaria, before the Berlin Wall fell. There were other eyes, too.
The Bulgarian economy was suffocating. The country's Turkish minority was reproducing at a rate that frightened many among the country's nearly eight million ethnic Bulgars, and memories of the Turks' domination of the Bulgars for 500 years during the Ottoman days still burned. There was one simple remedy, the Communists decided in 1984. Close the Turkish schools and mosques. Outlaw the Turkish tongue. Change all Turkish names to Bulgarian ones. Remove all tombstones bearing Turkish names. Eradicate a people. Make everyone a Bulgar. Even the best weightlifter in the world.
One night late in 1984, Suleymanoglu came home to visit his family. He walked through Momchilgrad as if in a dream. There were bullet holes in the walls and windows. Some neighbors were in prison. Some were dead. A darkness had settled over the land. "Those who didn't smoke before, smoked," says his brother, Raim. "Those who didn't drink before, drank." Suleymanoglu visited his aunt's house, then headed home after the 10 p.m. curfew. "Don't move or I'll shoot!" a policeman shouted. Suleymanoglufroze. Bulgaria's greatest athlete was just another Turk.
He considered defecting during a training camp in Australia in January 1985. His heart cried to leave, but his legs wouldn't do it; he still wasn't certain he could leave Abadjiev's system and be a champion on his own. On the flight home his teammates joked about the new name he would receive. "Ivan Zhivkov," they suggested, combining the names of his weightlifting father, Ivan Abadjiev, and Bulgaria's father, president Todor Zhivkov.
When Suleymanoglu stepped off the plane, the passport official pocketed his passport and told him where to report for his new one. Just like that, his new name was Naum Shalamanov.
The box grew tighter. Perhaps because Suleymanoglu's cheeks were paler than other Turks', because he wore no dark mustache nor played Turkish music, because he had lost much of his heritage and language when he left for sports school at 10, Communist officials thought they could have all of him. He had always been the good boy, always tried to please people. So they appeared with a TV crew and asked him to declare before the cameras that in truth he had always been Bulgar, that the Ottoman Turks had forced his ancestors to change the family name.
"All right," he replied, "but if I do it you will find my body in the bathroom tomorrow with a rope around my neck."
Abadjiev ordered the TV crew to leave. A few days later Suleymanoglu picked up a newspaper and saw an article about himself. "Bulgar blood runs through my veins," he was quoted as saying. "What I am doing now is retaking my old family name. I want to lift weights for Bulgaria with my true Bulgarian name." He had never spoken to the writer. "That finished it," says Suleymanoglu. "I felt hatred in my throat."
But now the box grew tighter still. Letters from fellow Bulgarian Turks who had read the article began filling his mailbox. "How can you live with yourself?" they asked him. "You sold your soul for money and fame." Day by day the desire to blow his hair off his forehead, to walk toward the bar, to open his mouth wide and drive the weights over his head was draining away. He began to smoke more often. "My arm hurts," he said one day. "I cannot train today." He let an assistant coach see one of the letters, to show him the terrible position the government had put him in. The coach asked for the other letters. Suleymanoglu's blood froze. All those who had written him would be tracked down, punished. He went back to his room and burned them all. He pulled his bedsheets over his head and cried.
Even Abadjiev and his teammates, when other people were around, addressed him as Naum. His family's phone was tapped. Two agents were assigned to watch him when he traveled abroad. The people in the system, those whose love he had had to depend upon ever since he had left his family, were liars, betrayers. "I could not share my feelings or be intimate with anyone," he says. "It was too dangerous. I learned not to trust. I could talk only to myself. Communism can make you lonely."
And then the Butcher miscalculated. At the same time that the world's greatest weightlifter was crying on his pillow, Abadjiev announced that the daily eight-hour workout schedule—already twice as long as any other program in the world—would be increased to nine hours. Suleymanoglu sat in his dormitory and stared at the walls of the box. If he trained harder and broke his world record by another five or 10 kilograms, he would only heap greater glory upon the country that had deceived him. But then, if he didn't train, if he allowed his biceps and pectorals to wither in order to punish Bulgaria, he would punish himself. He would lose the grudging appreciation of Abadjiev. He would spit upon his own immense pride.
He decided to join his teammates' rebellion against the Butcher. They wrote Abadjiev a letter vowing that all of them would quit if the coach didn't eliminate the extra hour of training and ease the weekend curfew. "Go!" Abadjiev thundered. "Do whatever you want!" The coach disappeared into his dorm room and wouldn't come out even to eat. For three days the dormitory of the best and most disciplined weightlifting team in the world turned into Animal House. Suleymanoglu and his teammates blasted their stereos, played soccer in the weightlifting room and wobbled home from the bars late at night.
Bulgarian sports officials rushed to the scene to mediate. A compromise was hammered out, workouts went back to eight hours a day. The Butcher reappeared, walked up and down in front of his team. "Five of you are responsible for this," he hissed. "You know who you are. Step forward." No one budged. One by one, Abadjiev called the names of the team's five best lifters. "You think you cannot be replaced, but you can. It is the system that made you. I am going to find someone better than each of you. You will not exist anymore."
Suleymanoglu cleared his throat. "If there is one who is better than me," he said, "go find him." His eyes and the Butcher's met. Both knew there was no such one. The pupil, at last, was ready to leave the master. In December 1986, at a team meal after the World Cup in Melbourne, Suleymanoglu excused himself to go to the bathroom, stepped into the car of a local Turk he had met on a previous trip and hid in the man's home for 48 hours while the Bulgarians screamed that he had been kidnapped.
Suleymanoglu dropped to his knees and kissed the tarmac when he landed at the airport in Ankara a few days later. He had no idea what kind of country he had come to, or to whom he could turn to for love—but he was free! The flight crew cried. A flock of photographers came toward him. Suleymanoglu smiled. Each of them lifted to his eye and clicked a small black box.
in a Communist country is very aware of why and how he is used," says Suleymanoglu. "He knows he will be squeezed like a lemon until the juice is gone. In some ways it is the same in a free society." He shakes his head. "I guess that is the way of the world."
In Bulgaria he had been rewarded for his achievements with one modest apartment and one proletarian, Soviet-made automobile. His photograph was on the walls of schools and gymnasiums there, but he had lived a life of quiet, human proportions. His first two weeks in Turkey, during which he was feted and put on display in every major city, so many photographers took so many pictures of him that it damaged his eyes. When he lay down and shut them, their flashes kept exploding inside his eyelids; Turkish officials had to beg the photographers to desist.
He was eager to walk the streets, to see life in his new land. But he couldn't do that without being mobbed. For two years word of what was happening to their brothers in Bulgaria had left the Turks feeling helpless—at last, by taking Suleymanoglu into their arms and homes, by lifting him onto their shoulders and having him tell his story to the world, they were doing something. Suleymanoglu was defenseless. He was a man alone, severed from his past, thrust into a role he never asked for but too needy of love to say no. His face was so babylike, his body so short, his voice so soft; his persona created no distance. Women instinctively wanted to mother him, men to father and brother him—he had no parents here; he was Turkey's orphan. "He is like my son," declared Prime Minister Ozal. "He is like my son," declared weightlifting federation president Arif Nusret Say.
One day at noontime in a small village where he thought no one would recognize him, he entered an alley filled with artisan shops. "Come into my store, my dear Naim," the first proprietor begged. "Have a drink of orange juice, take a sample of my work, or I shall be broken." The next said the same, and then the next. It wasn't until sundown that he exited the other end of the alley, sodden with orange juice, loaded down with leather belts, ceramics and glassware. Every time he met people, and again each time they parted, they opened their arms, pulled him to their chests and planted their wet lips on him. No one kissed a stranger in Bulgaria; he had to fight the urge to step backward. He nodded and smiled at everything they said, but because he had spoken their language so rarely since leaving his family at 10, he sometimes didn't understand half of it. When Ozal and his wife popped in for a visit at his new apartment, Suleymanoglu hurried to the kitchen to make the prime minister a cup of the thick, potent Turkish coffee. He had no idea what to do, and came out with a cupful of black mud, but Ozal proved his love: He drank it.
Suleymanoglu was assigned a tutor to learn the language and the customs. He was assigned three bodyguards, at first to protect him from Bulgarian agents who might try to steal him back, and then to protect him from Turkish fans who might smother him. Their love, he soon discovered, had two edges. His second month in Turkey, after a reception in his honor in Istanbul, a girl in attendance invited him to accompany her to a discotheque. "No," advised the Turkish general secretary of sports, nodding toward all the photographers. Suleymanoglu stared at the girl. No newspaper in Bulgaria had ever dared to follow him. Besides, why run to freedom if he couldn't inhale it?
Click. The next day there he was, on tens of thousands of breakfast tables, the symbol of repressed Turkhood, fresh from receiving homage, in mid-boogie at 2 a.m.
There are 12 daily newspapers in Turkey. Ten of them are frenzies of purple, orange, red, green, blue and yellow type, of thighs and breasts, of three-inch headlines pulling two-inch stories, of society gossip and celebrity glop—all geared, perhaps, to not exclude the 30% of the country's population that is illiterate. Never had the newspapers had a celebrity to play with like this one. Each time Suleymanoglu appeared in public, each time a woman a head and a half taller stood next to him, the trigger fingers couldn't resist . . . click, click. The darkest corner of the sleepiest nightclub was no refuge, as studio photographers traditionally paid nightclub owners a commission for the right to camp inside their lounges, snapping pictures of couples as they sipped champagne and selling the pictures to them for 15,000 or 20,000 lira (about $3) each. If Suleymanoglu was there with a woman, they ran with the negative to a newspaper office instead, where they might earn 15 or 20 times more. "I am a bachelor," he would protest. "I am a young man. Am I not allowed to enjoy life without seeing a picture of myself in the paper the next day?"
But too many good things, crazy things, scary things were happening to him during those first two years of freedom. He was stunned to learn that Olympic rules forbade an athlete to compete in the Games for three years after changing his citizenship; jubilant to learn that Ozal had anted up over $1 million to buy off Bulgaria, which agreed to waive the rule and make him eligible; frightened by the Bulgarians' refusal to free his family. On one of his shoulders rode Turkey's fear that its dearth of weightlifting facilities or tradition would undermine the world's greatest lifter, shaming both him and them in Seoul. "He will not be able to lift a newspaper here," one journalist predicted. On his other shoulder rode his own fear: Could he punish himself for eight hours a day without Abadjiev?
He could. "At night," he later told friends, "when I trained alone, I felt him right there behind my back."
He knew precisely what was loaded on both ends of the bar in Seoul. People's lives were at stake in Bulgaria, people's hopes and dreams in Turkey. He left with three gold medals—Turkey's first Olympic gold in 20 years. Bulgaria left Seoul in disgrace, with two of its lifters caught using banned diuretics and accounts of its treatment ofSuleymanoglu and his people told in newspapers and on television sets across the world. Abadjiev disappeared into his hotel room in Seoul. A maid found him a few days later, passed out from hunger on the floor.
remained for the Turks to give Suleymanoglu: godhood? Click. God went dancing in an Istanbul nightclub a few days after the deification parade. Click. God on the front page again, stepping out beneath the strobes.
What did it matter if he danced? He had already kissed the sport goodbye, he just hadn't yet worked up the courage to announce it. "Oh, that kiss of the bar," moans Say, the weightlifting federation president. "No one else knew what it meant, but each time I saw it replayed on TV, it was like a pot of boiling water poured upon my head." Ozal, having heard the rumors, cornered Suleymanoglu at a reception in the athlete's honor and asked him to promise him one more year—for Ozal's sake. "After one more," saidSuleymanoglu, "you will want one more." In front of the nation's top sportswriters that night, Ozal turned to Suleymanoglu and declared, "This country needs you. We expect many more championships from you." He made Suleymanoglu the first athlete in Turkish history to receive the National Pride and Honor Medal, placed his name on the national protocol list that guaranteed him an invitation to every government reception, wrote the introduction to Suleymanoglu's biography and made sure a few more apartments fell out of the sky on him, just in case the bed linen needed changing in the first half dozen.
Bulgarian secret police, Suleymanoglu could give the slip to. But Turkish love left him helpless. He remained in training, betraying his big heart, lifting with only half of it. A year after Seoul in the 1989 World Championships at Athens he won the snatch but failed to set a world record. That wouldn't be enough for the people, he knew. When it came time for the clean and jerk, he had the bar loaded with 424⅓ pounds, nearly six pounds more than his record in Seoul. He drove it up to his shoulders and felt a small knife in his back; he knew right away he should stop. "But he tried to lift it over his head anyway because of everyone's expectations," says Dr. Savas Agaoglu, the orthopedic surgeon and former weightlifter who serves as Suleymanoglu's personal physician. "He tried to do it because he needs people to love him. That was what made the injury worse."
Suleymanoglu couldn't get it over his head. The small knife became big, ligament damage between his 10th and 11th vertebrae. He clenched back the pain, entered one more competition and failed to set a world record again. Suleymanoglu sat in spas, lay on massage tables . . . and worried. Stories about his smoking and drinking—he had a weakness for cigarettes but wasn't a heavy drinker—began appearing more often in the papers and magazines, along with untrue rumors that he and Turkey's most famous belly dancer were living together. Odd, the tools were so different here from those the Communists had used, but the effect was the same: They were coming after his name.
"Big brother," he would say to Arif Say, "did you see what they put in the paper today? I am sad." Like a statue losing first a finger to the ice and sun and rain, then an ear, then a nose, the symbol Turkey so desperately needed was crumbling piece by piece. Before another appendage could be lost, Say stepped in.
He huddled with Agaoglu, then with Suleymanoglu. "Then I made a little mise-en-scène," Say chortles, using the French for a stage setting. "I was sad for Naim's loss of prestige, so I called all the media to a press conference. The doctor had told me that if the injury was lower in his back, it could be dangerous for him to continue lifting, but because it was higher, it was mostly a matter of rest. But I had the doctor announce that this defect in Suleymanoglu's back prohibited him from weightlifting anymore. I did it so those who were criticizing him would leave him alone. I did it to allow Suleymanoglu to do what he wanted to do, but could not do—retire. We let the rumor spread that if he continued to lift weights, there was a chance of paralysis for life." He chortles again and rolls his eyes. "When Mr. Ozal heard, he asked Naim to go to the United States to get a second opinion. Naim had to say no, because the injury was not really that bad!"
But would the people still love Suleymanoglu, now that he had stopped lifting the startling weights above his head? The night of his retirement, he invited a few friends to his apartment, sat them around a table and pulled out a video camera. He focused the camera upon his best friend, Jafer Topchu, a fellow Turk from Bulgaria. "Jafer," he asked, "why do you love Naim?"
Free at last?
No. As long as he needed to ask that question, he was still vulnerable to the box, and it was still hungry for him. The man who had taken Suleymanoglu's hand and shown him out its back door was the same one gently leading him back to the front one. "He did not know it," chortles Say, "but my plan was never for him to stay retired."
Half a year passed. Pictures of him kissing a girl in a disco, lies that he had sold an apartment to finance his night life. Suleymanoglu began to go out in other people's cars, enter hotel lobbies by back doors. He began to wear sunglasses at midnight.
He appeared so calm in public, so self-assured, that only a few realized what was happening inside of him. "He started to drink more," says Halil Mutlu, a teammate who also left Bulgaria. "His life was meaningless. People on the street were saying he had taken the money and run. Uncultured people. People who only know about soccer."
"Two a.m., 3 a.m., he could not sleep," says Topchu. "He had always slept like a bear before. He kept saying, 'I have nothing to do.' He would read those newspaper articles and become angry—but he would also feel guilty. He would say, 'If they think this is true, maybe it is. I have to find a way to prove it is not.' "
Say began setting his snares. He started feeding Suleymanoglu the street whispers he had tried to rescue him from before. He tried to import Abadjiev to coach the national team, hoping the old master could rekindle the flame, but the Butcher refused. Say reminded Suleymanoglu how many more lira and apartments he could earn, then had government ministers press him to come back. His masterstroke, though, was hiring Suleymanoglu to train Hafiz Suleymanoglu (no relation) for the 1990 World Championships in Budapest. "Naim is not a good trainer," says Say. "The intention was to get him to taste a major competition and draw him back."
It worked. As soon as he had finished watching Nikolai Peshalov—hell, Suleymanoglu remembered the guy as just a little kid looking up to him with saucer eyes back in Bulgaria—win the world title at 132 pounds with a total in the snatch and clean and jerk that was 99 pounds less than Suleymanoglu's results in Seoul, Naim started drinking. He invited Peshalov to his room, and until sunrise he sat there in the darkness, the tip of his cigarette glowing orange, reminding the Bulgar every now and then how far behind he would have finished had Suleymanoglu competed. At nine the next morning, when Say entered Suleymanoglu's room to ask him how he felt, Naim's eyes filled with tears.
Soon thereafter he began lifting on his own, to make sure the back pain wouldn't return. Five months after Budapest, in February 1991, he stood before all the men holding up all the little black boxes again. He was 24. "The nostalgia has ended," he declared. "I am born once again."
His first official workout, to be followed by a meeting with Turkey's minister of sports, was scheduled for 11 a.m. the next day. He slept through both. NAIM'S EMBARRASSMENT screamed the next day's headline.
see that much motivation for him now," says Agaoglu. "He has no rival. The records he has set are so high they are nearly impossible to break. He must live like a priest to do that, and I do not think he can now. I do not see any signs from him that he is ready to suffer as before."
There's only one way for a man holding 400 pounds over his head to put the weight down—abruptly, taking one step back, extending both hands to keep it from bouncing wildly. Perhaps it's the only way to put a nation of 55 million people down, too.
But Suleymanoglu tried to do it slowly, gently, lowering their expectations inch by inch, buying time until Barcelona. Before each of the competitions he has entered since his return—all of which, including the 1991 World Championships in Germany last September and October, he has won, earning his 11th, 12th and 13th apartments—he has warned everyone that he would seek no world records, that he only wants to win. But. . . .
"To be world champion will not be enough," says Necmeddin Altay, Turkey's assistant director of youth and sports. "We expect him to be a champion, and also to break world records. We are behind him with all our hearts. He knows of these expectations. It will be a driving force for him."
Suleymanoglu snuffs out a cigarette. He nods and speaks of the Barcelona Games, in which he will try one last time to lift an unprecedented weight—and in the same motion, to let one down. "I know what they expect," he says. "I want to break one more record, in the Olympics. I am like a rich man who is never full of money. I feel I can do it. I want to give that to the people, and then I want to turn the page. I don't know if that will be enough. It seems the people's wishes never stop."
He winces. Last year a photograph of a Japanese woman with an obviously ripe belly appeared in the newspaper, beneath the headline: NAIM'S GIRLFRIEND PREGNANT. She has since given birth, to a girl, but she and Suleymanoglu are not living together. Later there was a photograph of the Mercedes he smashed against a median after his tire had gone flat.
His mother, the wisp of smiling silence, has another idea how to free her son from the box, something quieter and more reliable than a million people chanting and honking horns.
"Let's get him married," she says.
Naim cringes. Another box. . . .