The weightlifting defector who became an Olympic icon
Naim Suleymanoglu 1967–2017
Naim Suleymanoglu was already a sporting legend by the time he competed in his first Olympics in 1988. Not only had the 4-foot-10-inch weightlifter previously set 20 world records, he’d also defected to Turkey from Communist Bulgaria, where his ethnic Turkish family was oppressed. Cheered on by flag-waving Turks at the Seoul Olympics, the so-called Pocket Hercules broke six world records and won his first gold medal.
“I have done the greatest a man can do in sport, but my thoughts are not on the gold medal,” Suleymanoglu said. “My thoughts are with my family. My deepest hope is that they can join me in Turkey.” Shamed on the international stage, Bulgarian authorities let his parents and two brothers do just that a month later.
Born in southern Bulgaria, Suleymanoglu built up his strength as a child by lifting “rocks and tree branches,” said The New York Times. At age 14, “he won a 19-and-under world title.” But Suleymanoglu felt little pride representing Bulgaria, which in the mid-1980s shut Turkish mosques and schools and ordered ethnic Turks to use Bulgarian surnames. So after winning a gold medal at the world championships in Australia in 1986, he fled his Bulgarian minders and requested asylum at the Turkish consulate. The weightlifter kissed the airport tarmac on his arrival in Turkey.
Suleymanoglu became “a national hero in his adopted country” and again won gold at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, said The Washington Post. He arrived in Sydney in 2000 hoping to win a fourth Olympic gold. But he was 33 and smoking nearly 60 cigarettes a day, and missed all his snatch lifts. As he left the arena, he told waiting journalists, “Bye-bye, it’s over.”