It’s the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and Naim Süleymanoğlu treads a few steps to reach the raised platform of the men’s weightlifting competition. His body is small and compact, with his arms hovering just slightly beside his wide core. Short but muscular legs carry him forward almost robotically.
As he rests 187.5 kilograms on his chest, a muffled grunt escapes from Süleymanoğlu’s o-shaped mouth. Seconds later, he lifts the barbell overhead as he positions his final stance. His opponent, Valerios Leonidis, will soon sob backstage after failing to outdo Süleymanoğlu, who’s just won his third Olympic gold medal.
Nowadays, the former weightlifter is an elusive man; he often has his phone turned off, and when on, he rarely answers it. When you do manage to get through to him, his sentences are rushed. ‘I don’t like giving interviews,’ says Süleymanoğlu.
The Olympian was once known as ‘Cep Herkülü’, or Pocket Hercules, a term of endearment for both his muscle and measurements. At four feet and 10 inches tall, ‘very short but very strong’ is an understatement for Süleymanoğlu, who has broken 46 world records, won seven World Championships and taken home three Olympic gold medals for lifting more than twice his body weight.
‘You have to work hard, and when that hard work is rewarded with success, of course it makes you very happy,’ he says, when asked about the spotlight and becoming a hero of sorts among the Turkish people. ‘Before then no one really knew about weightlifting and there were no real success stories. The sport came to life with me.’
Born on January 23, 1967 in Ptichar, a village in southern Bulgaria, Süleymanoğlu and his family moved when he was two years old to Momchilgrad, a town known for its Turk majority. As a child, he often visited the swimming pool across the street from his family home, where Süleymanoğlu grew close to his coaches. They encouraged him to sign up for the barbells. ‘I started weightlifting when I was 10 years old and by the time I was 14, I joined the national junior team. A year later, I won the national junior championship in Brazil.’
In 1984, however, the changing political climate in Bulgaria acted as a roadblock to Süleymanoğlu’s advancing career. The country abided to the Soviet Union’s boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics, meaning the weightlifter couldn’t attend. He missed out on what might have been his first gold medal.
That year, personal complications continued for the young Süleymanoğlu. Bulgaria, taking a radical step to deal with its issues of ethnic diversity, initiated an assimilation campaign. The Bulgarian government attempted to change the names of nearly one million Turks between 1984 and 1985 from Arabic- Turkish to Slavic-Bulgarian.
‘I decided to move to Turkey and my attendance at the upcoming World Weightlifting Championship in Australia was the best getaway to that,’ says Süleymanoğlu, who eventually made it to the Turkish Embassy in Melbourne.
It was at this point that Turkey’s former president Turgut Özal took great interest in the young weightlifter’s potential. ‘He called the ambassador and told him to do whatever was necessary to bring me to Turkey and that they’d offer me every possible opportunity.’ As legend has it, the Turkish government would go on to pay Bulgaria a reported one million dollars to release Süleymanoğlu and grant him permission to become a Turkish citizen capable of representing Turkey in the upcoming Olympic Games.
When asked about his greatest success, he remembers the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he made his Olympic debut and lifted 190 kilograms in the ‘clean and jerk’ (a move that entails swiftly lifting a barbell from the floor to a racked position and then to a stationary position above the head) and 152.5 kilograms in the ‘snatch’ (lifting the barbell from the ground to overhead in one continuous motion). The end result? His ability to lift a total of 342.5 kilograms not only earned him his first gold medal, but also a world record, as he exceeded the previous by 30 kilograms. ‘It was a very important win for Turkish weightlifting,’ says Süleymanoğlu, whose photo landed on the cover of Time Magazine with the line ‘Everybody Wins’.
It seemed to be the start of Süleymanoğlu’s winning streak. In 1992, the champion won another gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics, beating Bulgarian lifter Nikolaj Pesalov. But his third gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics would mark the end of his Olympic career. While he attempted a final Olympic appearance in 2000 in Sydney, he was eliminated after he was unable to lift 145 kilograms. ‘I miss it,’ he says, ‘but after you reach a certain age you have to give it up, whether you want to or not.’
Though he was eliminated from his last Olympic performance, he was given the Olympic Order in 2001, the Olympic Movement’s highest award. Three years later, Süleymanoğlu entered the International Weightlifting Federation’s Hall of Fame.
The athlete has become somewhat of a hermit since his Olympic fame. The last time Süleymanoğlu made a public appearance was in a television commercial for Akbank. And in those quick 55 seconds, he stands as an older man, almost unrecognisable in a red and white jumpsuit. His belly, now rotund, is exaggerated for comic relief as he lifts Turkish actor İlker Ayrık into the air. Perhaps a strange metaphor for corporate advertising, the commercial is a reminder of the ephemeral quality of time.
‘It’s been 16 years since I gave up weightlifting,’ he says, before adding what, over time, may have become a rehearsed line: ‘I’ve grown used to a normal life.’
Brownbook, May-June, 2016