Suleymanoglu lifts weights and hearts with extraordinary hat-trick
Not many small men have made such a big impact on the modern Olympics as the unique weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu. The Bulgarian-born lifter was to become a national symbol in Turkey and was dubbed ‘the Pocket Hercules’ such were his Olympian exploits at just 1.47m tall and weighing 132lbs.
He won the first of three gold medals in the featherweight division at Seoul in 1988 by an extraordinary margin. Such was his dominance that he broke the world record in both the snatch and the clean and jerk categories, and produced a combined weight that would have won gold in the heavier lightweight division.
But Suleymanoglu’s journey to glory was far from straightforward.
Born Naim Suleimanov the son of a miner from the ethnic Turkish community of Bulgaria, he was breaking world records at the age of 15 and would have been favourite for gold in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles had it not been for the Eastern bloc boycott.
Amid a crackdown on ethnic Turks by the Bulgarian government in 1985, he had his passport taken by the authorities and his name was changed to the non-Islamic Naum Shalamanov.
Incensed by this, the lifter was at a World Cup event in Melbourne in 1986 when he decided to defect and lift under the colours of his adopted home, Turkey.
For him to be able to compete internationally he needed the agreement of the Bulgarian government, who received $1,000,000 from the Turks to enable the move.
It was estimated that a million people lined the streets of Turkey to welcome him home after his crushing win in South Korea. He lifted a total of 30kg more than his nearest rival, ironically a Bulgarian.
The Olympic weightlifting gymnasium was a sea of red and white Turkish flags as Suleymanoglu completed his programme by lifting an astonishing 190kgs in the clean and jerk.
He would become the first lifter to win three consecutive gold medals in Atlanta in 1996, and he was granted the Olympic Order by IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001.