Weightlifter Süleymanoğlu raises the bar to new heights

Picture by Getty

Weightlifters rarely enjoy global celebrity status, but that is what happened to Turkey's Naim Süleymanoğlu.

The Turkish lifter had won gold medals at the previous two Games, both times in the featherweight category. Kilo for kilo, he had been acclaimed as the world’s strongest man, having already become the first person ever to snatch two and a half times his own body weight.

No weightlifter had ever won gold medals at three consecutive Olympics. But, if anyone was ever well placed to break that record, it was surely Süleymanoğlu.

He was only 29 years old, and the reigning world champion, but there was now a real contender to his crown on the scene in the guise of Greece’s Valerios Leonidis. The Russia-born lifter had been closing the gap on the champion for the previous few years and only lost the 1995 European title by 2.5kg. That same year at the World Championships, the two rivals lifted the same total, with Süleymanoğlu winning solely by virtue of being lighter. In Atlanta, though, it was Leonidis who weighed in the lighter of the two men.

What ensured was  a truly titanic contest. The snatch saw both men lift 145kg, but only Süleymanoğlu succeeded at 147.5kg, meaning that he led by 2.5kg at the halfway mark. However, the real drama was still to come.

In the clean and jerk, both men opened with lifts of 180kg. The world record stood at 183kg, but Süleymanoğlu decided to go straight for 185kg. The crowd fell silent – and he held the weight, broke the record and opened up a significant lead. Remarkably, though, Leonidis countered with an audacious attempt at 187.5kg and he duly stunned the crowd and indeed the watching world by lifting it above his head to set another new world record.

Süleymanoğlu had no choice but to attempt to match that… which he did, equalling the record and regaining the overall lead. The final lift would now see Leonidis try to lift 190kg to take gold. He got the bar to his chest, but couldn’t power it any further and had to settle for silver.

After being pushed to the limits of his powers, Süleymanoğlu had made history with his third gold medal.