'Pocket Hercules' sets weightlifting record in winning third gold Turkey's Suleymanoglu gets mark on last attempt

Atlanta Olympics

July 23, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- They came to praise the Olympian who drinks, smokes, wants to make movies and wants to marry a Kennedy. They waved their Turkish flags and sang their Turkish songs and painted their faces with crescent moons and stars.

And when Naim Suleymanoglu, Turkey's 4-foot-11 "pocket Hercules," hoisted a refrigerator-sized, world-record weight above his head on his way to claiming his record third Olympic gold medal yesterday, they cheered and danced in the aisles.

"Have you ever heard of 'Little Big Man,' the movie?" said Siman Ozmen, who joined a line of fans wearing T-shirts and letters that spelled T-U-R-K-E-Y.

"He is like Dustin Hoffman," said Ersin Sendogan, wearing the T.

"He is a hero," said Sendogan. "He is a god."

And he is an Olympian for the ages.

Suleymanoglu out-dueled Valerios Leonidis of Greece to win the 141-pound weight class in a spectacular show that ended with record-breaking lifts.

This was weightlifting as entertainment. Greek fans on the left. Turks on the right. The weights in the middle. Rock and roll over the sound system. Even International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch put in an appearance.

Mark it down as a great Olympic moment: A thousand Turkish fans dancing to "YMCA" by the Village People.

Another great moment: Suleymanoglu going to work, needing a record for the gold. No problem. He tightened his belt, caked his hands and chest with chalk, grabbed the bar like a guy about to dig a ditch and lifted it over his head with a silent scream and a wiggle of his hips.

The announcer at the Georgia Congress Center was so excited by the outcome, he blurted out: "You probably witnessed one of the best weightlifting contests in the history of the world."

Suleymanoglu set world records in his class for the clean and jerk (413 1/4 pounds) and total weight (738 1/2 ).

Leonidis, who also broke the previous world standard, had a chance to win on the final lift, but failed to hoist the weight and was second by 5 1/2 pounds.

China's Xiao Jiangang claimed the bronze.

"My performance was higher," Suleymanoglu said. "I always wanted to be the best."

His goal now is to emulate Arnold Schwarzenegger -- to take Hollywood by storm and to marry a Kennedy woman. But he doesn't speak much English, and he'd need shoe lifts to play opposite a leading female star.

But Suleymanoglu long has been accustomed to overcoming long odds.

He was weightlifting's most high-prized free agent. Born in Bulgaria, he fled the country in 1986 when the government attempted to force those of Turkish descent to change the spelling of their last names.

Turkey's weightlifting federation wanted him badly, or at least badly enough to pay the Bulgarians $1 million so he could gain his eligibility in time for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

Suleymanoglu won the gold in Seoul and a million people greeted him on his return to Istanbul. He won again in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain. For Suleymanoglu, the medals were worth millions, as the Turkish government gave him cash, homes and cars.

"He is already the biggest sports hero in Turkey," Savas Asaoglu, the head of the Turkish weightlifting federation, said before the competition. "If he wins again, he will be even more popular. Plus, I'm sure he will be rewarded with a new house, and over $10,000, as well as other things.

"At the time of his defection, Turkey was only 10th to 15th in the world in weightlifting," Asaoglu said. "Now we are challenging for the team title. He made weightlifting popular with people, so we got many more participants. Also, because of his successes, the government poured money into our programs."

But money doesn't create an athlete like Suleymanoglu. Stubby and stubborn, drinking and smoking during his training, he remains the "pocket Hercules," hero to his people, one of the greatest weightlifters of all time.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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