`Hercules' shows he's only human

September 18, 2000|By John Eisenberg

SYDNEY, Australia - He bounded out of the locker room to the beat of driving rock music playing on the sound system, and the auditorium erupted. The big man was in the house -- all 5 feet 3 of him.

Fans waving Turkey's red-and-white flag and cheering themselves hoarse chanted his name as he surged toward the stage amid an entourage of coaches and trainers, the familiar cocoon of a boxing champion.

Only this wasn't a boxer, it was a weightlifter, the most remarkable of all - Naim Suleymanoglu, the Bulgarian-born Turk known around the world as "Pocket Hercules." Small enough to fit in your pocket, but as strong as Hercules.

An Olympic gold medalist as a featherweight in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, he was out to make history last night at the Sydney Convention Centre and become only the fourth athlete to win the same event in four straight Olympiads. Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom and American track stars Al Oerter and Carl Lewis were the first three.

"Herc" had come out of a three-year retirement to train for Sydney and had guaranteed a gold medal, even though he was now 33, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and struggling to fend off a new generation of young guns. What would any of that matter in the end? He was Babe Ruth, a world-record holder since 1985, the "20th Century's Greatest Weightlifter," according to the International Weightlifting Federation.

"I will do whatever it takes to win another gold, even if it means breaking the world record again," he said before the Games.

A member of Bulgaria's Turkish minority until he was 19, he defected to Turkey in 1986, slipping out of a Chinese restaurant during a competition in Australia and fleeing an increasingly oppressive government and weightlifting officials who wanted him to compete under a more Bulgarian name.

Two years later, Turkey paid $1 million to secure Bulgaria's permission to allow him to compete in Seoul, and he delivered a gold medal that made him a hero and a millionaire in a country in which weightlifting is a front-page sport.

Built to excel with unusually short arms and legs on an average-sized torso, he could lift three times his body weight with his sturdy trunk and short, forceful thrust, and he went on to dominate the sport in the '90s, setting records and winning gold medals while sometimes lifting more than larger men in heavier classifications.

When he won his Olympic gold medal in 1992, he kissed the bar, announced his retirement and was met by thousands of fans at the airport upon returning to Turkey. He came back for Atlanta, out-dueled a Greek challenger for the gold and retired again, confessing that he preferred partying to training.

He was a celebrity in a sport dogged by doping scandals and shadowy behavior - Qatar bought a team from Bulgaria for the Sydney Games, paying for eight lifters and giving them instant citizenship - and now he was back to complete his legend with one more moment of glory.

The weightlifting venue is among the least-American pockets of the broad Olympic cloth, a noisy blur of Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks and Russians shouting about a sport that barely draws any attention in America, but this was a moment that translated into any sporting culture.

This was the aging superstar in search of the perfect valedictory. The farewell that would elevate his myth.

The roaring Turk fans grew silent with anticipation as "Herc" crouched over the bar for his first lift at 320 pounds. Staring blankly with his face knotted in concentration, he opened his mouth - a famous habit - and brought the bar to his waist as the fans erupted.

Then came the unthinkable. The Pocket Hercules paused, wavered and dropped the bar.

Strike one.

The fans gasped and Suleymanoglu stepped back and looked down at the bar with disgust, as if it were an old friend who had betrayed him. Lifters gets three chances in each of the two disciplines ("snatch" and "clean and jerk") that make up the competition, so it was too soon to panic. But this was not in the script.

Ominously, the next lifter, a young Croatian, coolly raised the 320 pounds amid much less noise and fanfare. There was less cheering and flag waving when Suleymonoglu came back after that for his second attempt, his aura of invincibility suddenly beginning to flicker.

He grabbed the bar and crouched. Opened his mouth. Froze for a beat in the silent auditorium.

Up went the bar over his head ever-so briefly ... then back down with a crash before he could steady it.

Strike two.

Suddenly, Babe Ruth was on the brink. If he couldn't "snatch" the 320 pounds on his final attempt, he was out of the competition entirely without a successful lift in the first discipline. Blown out before halftime, basically.

Even more ominously, a Greek lifter came out next and lifted 330 pounds - 10 more than Suleymanoglu - and then "Herc" was back out for his final attempt with his whistle-blowing, flag-waving following reduced to silence.

He crouched, opened his mouth and brought the bar up and over his head as the silence gave way to a roar, but then, to everyone's horror, his arms wobbled and the bar drifted behind his head. He let go before he could steady it.

The bar crashed to the ground behind Suleymanoglu as he crouched in despair with his head down, his pledge to win a fourth straight gold medal suddenly reduced to hot air.

Too many cigarettes, too much retirement, too old to fend off the next generation.

Nikolay Pechalov of Croatia became the first featherweight other than Suleymanoglu to win the gold since 1984.

The Pocket Hercules offered only the briefest of comments before departing.

"Thank you, good night, it's over," he said.

His time was up. It happens to all of us.

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