Best Olympic Athletes: Naim Suleymanoglu, the Pocket Hercules

In the second of our seven-part Best Olympic athletes series we look at weightlifters, where Naim Suleymanoglu set records, won gold medals and captivated everyone.

When Valerios Leonidis tried to eclipse him, Naim Suleymanoglu delivered his finest performance in the Atlanta 1996 Games.
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Naim Suleymanoglu, the 'Pocket Hercules', set records, won gold medals and captivated everyone, writes Chuck Culpepper

So, how could anybody reach No 1 among Olympic weightlifters? How can anyone strain and nudge through such a thick and muscular crowd of such populous excellence to man the summit?

The best Olympic athletes

No 2 weightlifter: Pyrros Dimas. Read article

No 3 weightlifter: Vasily Alexeyev. Read article

The Best Olympic swimmer: Michael Phelps. Read article

Chuck Culpepper comment: The Olympic spirit cannot be quashed. Read article

Isn't the sport so simple and so spare and so dependent upon wee margins that the top 10 could be entirely interchangeable? Aren't there people outside the top 10 that some rational sorts might peg as No 1? Hasn't this sport had an unusual flood of memorable champions?

Yes and yes and yes, so the case for Naim Suleymanoglu requires some cautious building until it adds up to … well, one.

First off, surely some of his appeal owes to his stirring biography. The son of a zinc miner from southern Bulgaria left home for a sports school at 10. He stopped growing at 1.50m but became a world record-holder at the age of 15. He became the second man to lift thrice his body weight before he became a man, technically, at 16.

He defected to Turkey at 19 largely because of ethnic discrimination against Turks at home, and he did not see his family for two years.

He became a wildfire phenomenon. His Olympic moments stilled the country. His victory parades drew millions. His emergences into public caused a ruckus. His presence wreaked gushing from presidents. The appreciation for him - "I'm a Turk," he famously said at Seoul 1988 - dredged tears from males.

His nickname - "Pocket Hercules" - proved so inventive and so catchy that it must get some credit for helping transport his image out of the realm of weightlifting and into the consciousness of the general public that typically does not follow weightlifting.

Image does give a boost.

Operating from the featherweight division, he became the first weightlifter to win three gold medals, a feat since matched by Pyrros Dimas, Halil Mutlu and Kashi Kakhiashvili, but in Suleymanoglu's case, there's an added consideration. Born in 1967, he was 17 and ruling the world by the time of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but he remained a citizen of Bulgaria and suffered the Soviet-led boycott.

To say he would have won four gold medals hardly qualifies as anything close to rash.

And then, Seoul. Certainly many of the multiple-medal weightlifters have forged dominant days that defy belief in a sport for which the witnessing itself often defies belief, but at Seoul 1988, Suleymanoglu's pile of accomplishments spun the onlookers into a veritable frenzy.

In one day, Suleymanoglu kept blowing the hair off his forehead and ringing up eye-popping feats.

He set Olympic records nine times and world records six times. His total for the sport's two Olympic lifts - the snatch and the clean-and-jerk - surpassed the previous best total by a gaping 52.38kg (or 115.5 pounds). As his coach told the US magazine Sports Illustrated, "His first lift, he wins the competition. His second lift, he breaks the world record. His third lift … he does not need his third lift."

When finished, he famously bent over and kissed the bar. Roughly 50 million Turks swooned. The parade through Ankara teemed. A hero in an adopted homeland, a very young man of 19, who smoked cigarettes and amassed residences that soon numbered in the double digits, he retired from the sport, but returned and won gold easily at Barcelona 1992.

There, fans and journalists did stream in to get a glimpse of somebody who at birth would have had scant chance for super stardom.

Suleymanoglu upheld his name, easily.

That made him a two-time champion but, in building this case for No 1, it might help if some sort of all-time Olympic moment - maybe something involving a ferocious rival - lay in store. It did.

For gut-mangling absorption, the happenings in the weightlifting venue on the first Monday of Atlanta 1996 rank with anything that ever happened Olympic-wise. On that lucky-to-be-there afternoon, in a nondescript building, Suleymanoglu and Valerios Leonidis of Greece took turns one-upping each other as Turks and Greeks boomed cheers and waved flags from each side of the premises.

It built and built and built and built.

In the clean-and-jerk, while holding a slight lead from the snatch, needing to outpoint his lighter opponent and flinching not in the steepest challenge, Suleymanoglu lifted a world-record 185kg. Leonidis lifted a world-record 187.5kg. Suleymanoglu lifted a world-record-tying 187.5kg to retain his lead.

Leonidis lifted a world-record 190, but only to his shoulders.

The men embraced. The public-address announcer broke charmingly from the neutrality of public-address etiquette and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes today's competition, and you have probably witnessed one of the greatest weightlifting contests in the history of the world."

Leonidis said, "I consider myself lucky. I'm competing against a man who is the best in the world."

Suleymanoglu said, "Someone was trying to be better than me, so I had to prove to be the best."

People kept asking "Pocket Hercules" if it made him the best ever, and he said, "You must make your own decision."

All right, then. That stout moment of Atlanta, combined with the plain dominance of Barcelona and the jaws dropping in Seoul and even the boycott of Los Angeles, and all of it rendered moot the fizzle that came later at Sydney 2000. The whole gripping story turned into a "yes".

In a great field, it added up to just enough.

The top 10 Olympic Weightlifters

1. Naim Suleymanoglu, Turkey, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 – The "Pocket Hercules" became renowned.

2. Pyrros Dimas, Greece, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 – The immigrant became deeply beloved.

3. Vasily Alexeyev, Soviet Union, 1972, 1976, 1980 – World's Strongest Manlured fans to the sport.

4. Halil Mutlu, Turkey, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 – Charisma accompanied this Bulgaria-born admirer of Suleymanoglu, who stood gigantic at 1.5m and finished fifth in 1992 before sweeping three golds.

5. Kakhi Kakhiashvili, Greece, 1992, 1996, 2000 – The Georgia-born marvel won goldin three consecutive Olympics and gained note for his otherworldly focus and determination.

6. Yoshinobu Miyake, Japan, 1960, 1964, 1968 – In addition to his silver in 1960 and golds in 1964 and 1968, he proved visionary with hismethod, named the "Miyake Pull", with heels together and knees outward.

7. Tommy Kono, United States, 1952, 1956, 1960 – The only weightlifter who set world records in four different classes, this Japanese-American took up the sport as a child in a US internment camp and wound up winning a gold at 67.5kg, a gold at 82.5kg and a silver at 75kg.

8. Arkady Vorobyov, Soviet Union, 1952, 1956, 1960 – A former Marine, a former diver who defused sea mines, a medical scientist, a bronze medallist and a double-gold medallist at 90kg.

9. Ronny Weller, East Germany/Germany, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 –Medalled across four consecutive Olympicsand participating in five.

10. Hossein Rezazadeh, Iran, 2000, 2004 –His dominance in the super-heavyweight division found its Olympic heights in gold medals at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004.

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