Featherweight lifter makes wait pay off in gold Suleymanoglu repeats as winner for Turkey

July 29, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- We are waiting for Naim Suleymanoglu.

He is somewhere in the locker room. Pacing. Inhaling smelling salts. Letting the equivalent of weightlifting comics warm up the room.

One by one, the thickly muscled men wobble under the weight of hundreds of pounds wrapped in plastic discs around a steel bar. The crowd stirs. Twenty minutes pass. Twenty-five. Thirty.

We are waiting for Suleymanoglu.

Finally, the announcer calls out, "Naim Suleymanoglu, please get ready. You'll be next." Four men in sweat suits then scurry around the bar, adding weight, as the crowd cheers.

Like Sinatra hitting the stage in Vegas, the man from Istanbul by way of Bulgaria appears from behind a wrinkled blue curtain, walks slowly up four steps, dips his hands into chalk, and approaches the bar.

He is 5 feet tall and weighs 132 pounds with arms as wide as the trunk of a Sequoia. He looks at the bar. He puffs the air until the brown hair on his forehead does a dance.

And then, he lifts 314 pounds of steel like a father tossing a baby boy. Waves to the crowd. And leaves.

Yesterday, weightlifting's Pocket Hercules won a gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics. Suleymanoglu won the featherweight title with a combined total of 705 1/4 pounds.

Suleymanoglu easily defeated Bulgarian Nikolai Peshalov (672) and China's He Yingquiang (650 1/4 ). But this was a night without world records, without Suleymanoglu's trademark greatness.

"The main thing I had in mind was to get the medal in the first place," he said. "I wanted to set a new world record. But I had to be careful."

This was a different Pocket Hercules. Mature. Yet less fiery and less productive. At the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, he broke the world record six times on his way to a total weight of 755 pounds.

He was a man on a mission.

Suleymanoglu, born in Bulgaria, was of Turkish descent. The Soviet-led boycott kept him from the 1984 Los Angeles Games. And then in a crackdown against the Turks, he was forced to change his name, to renounce his ancestry. He chose to defect on a trip to Australia.

The Turkish government paid Bulgaria $1 million to enable Suleymanoglu to appear in the 1988 Games. And when he won the gold, Turkey rejoiced. A million people welcomed him home. Animals were slaughtered in his honor.

But Suleymanoglu was under stress. He simply quit for 1 1/2 years with a mysterious back injury that was really an excuse to stay away from the limelight.

Yet the Olympics beckoned. And yesterday, he lifted three times his weight over his head, and then waved his belt in triumph, kissing a gold medal.

The wait for Pocket Hercules had ended.

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