Three-times Olympic champion Naim Süleymanoğlu dies aged 50  

Nicknamed ‘Pocket Hercules’, Turkish weightlifter Naim Süleymanoğlu was a unique, record-breaking athlete – the only man in history who snatch-lifted two-and-a-half times his body weight. The former World and Olympic Champion died yesterday, Saturday 18 November, at an Istanbul hospital where he was receiving treatment for cirrhosis of the liver. He was fifty years old.

Süleymanoğlu is considered one of the greatest athletes to have lived, earning his nickname for his strength and diminutive size. The weightlifter was 4 ft 10 in (1.47 metres) tall and weighed on average 62 kg during competition time. He quickly made a name for himself with his record-breaking feats that saw him win three consecutive Olympic gold medals for Turkey between 1988 and 1996 by lifting far beyond his own body weight.

Born in Bulgaria as Naim Suleimanov in January 1967 and of ethnic Turkish origin, the young athlete first created an international stir as a teenager when he set his first world record at the age 16. Many tipped him for Olympic success, but he was denied his first chance when Bulgaria, then under Communist rule, supported the Soviet Union’s boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

During this time, the repressive Communist government in Bulgaria had forced its Turkish minority to adopt Bulgarian names, while also depriving them of other basic rights. The young weightlifter was given the new name of Naum Shalamanov.

The talented Bulgarian Turk decided to defect while competing at the World Cup Final in Melbourne in 1986. He applied for citizenship in Turkey, where he changed his name to the authentic Turkish spelling of Süleymanoğlu. The Bulgarian authorities were furious their prize athlete had switched allegiances. They prevented him from international competition for a year, demanding and receiving $1,250,000 from Turkey before the weightlifter could compete for for his adopted country.

Within a short time, Süleymanoğlu repaid Turkey’s handsome investment in him, winning gold in the Featherweight division at the Seoul Olympics in South Korea. During the Games, the weightlifter set a new world record lifting 190 kg in the clean and jerk.

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The following year Süleymanoğlu added the World Championship title, turning him into a national hero. He toyed with the idea of retirement aged 22, but decided to return to competition in 1991. He was selected for the national team to compete at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, where he won his second Olympic gold medal.

Süleymanoğlu continued to dominate his sport, winning world titles and setting new records between Olympiads. His most stunning victory came at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where he was up against another widely fancied opponent, Valerios Leonidis of Greece, in a dramatic final that cemented his reputation as an Olympic legend.

“You have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history”

The atmosphere in the Georgia World Congress Center was electric, as the crowd split its loyalties between these two great weightlifters. Süleymanoğlu and Leonidis were the last two athletes left in the 64kg competition and their bid to outdo each other generated three world-record lifts on the trot, much to the delight of the crowd. Süleymanoğlu set a new record as he managed to lift 187.5 kg with his last attempt, obliging Leonidis to try a higher weight in order to win.

In one of the most poignant moments of the Games, the Greek athlete was left in floods of tears after failing his final attempt at 190 kg that left him with the silver medal. Pushing national and sporting rivalries to one side, Olympic and World champion Süleymanoğlu rushed to comfort his opponent as the announcer Lynn Jones proclaimed: “You have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history.”

Süleymanoğlu remains the first and only weightlifter to snatch 2.5 times his body weight. He is the second of only seven weightlifters to clean and jerk three times his body weight, and the only one to clean and jerk 10 kilos more than triple his body weight.

His magnificent sporting achievements led to him being awarded the Olympic Order in 2001. In 2000 and 2004 he was also elected member of the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame.

Returning to civilian life, Süleymanoğlu stood in the 1999 General Elections as an independent candidate for Bursa but failed to get elected. He was also unsuccessful in his bids for public office when he stood as the Nationalist Movement Party candidate for the Mayor of Kıraç, near Istanbul, in 2002, and again for MHP in the 2006 General Elections.

In later years, Süleymanoğlu was reported to be battling alcoholism and was admitted into hospital several times. According to a medical statement issued after his death, the former world champion had been in intensive care since Sept. 28. He had a liver transplant on 6 Oct, but suffered a setback with a brain haemorrhage, undergoing more surgery on 11 Nov before passing away yesterday.

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Although never married, Süleymanoğlu revealed in an interview with Posta newspaper in 2014 that he has fathered four children.

The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırm and Sports, Youth Minister Osman Aşkın Bak and former Olympic weightlifting champion Halil Mutlu. were among the hundreds to turn out for ‘Pocket Hercules’ funeral earlier today.

One of the most notable faces who came to pay their respects was Süleymanoğlu’s great rival Valerios Leonidis. The 51-year-old former athlete came to the courtyard of Fatih Mosque in Istanbul. He stood before the coffin draped in a Turkish flag before kissing it.