Turkey bids farewell to ‘pocket Hercules’ Süleymanoğlu
Thousands of people attended a funeral ceremony on Nov. 19 in Istanbul as the nation bid farewell to legendary triple Olympic gold-medal winning Turkish weightlifter Naim Süleymanoğlu, who died at the age of 50 a day earlier.
Bulgarian-born Süleymanoğlu, the diminutive “pocket Hercules,” was admitted to a hospital on Sept. 28 due to liver failure caused by cirrhosis and underwent a liver transplant on Oct. 6. He remained in intensive care following a brain hemorrhage and underwent further surgery on Nov. 11, and died on Nov. 18, according to a medical statement.
Süleymanoğlu, who was only 1.47 meters tall, scored a historic hat-trick of consecutive Olympic titles starting in Seoul in 1988 then Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996.
Süleymanoğlu’s exploits made him a national hero in Turkey, where he is regarded as one of the greatest sports personalities in the country’s history.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had visited Süleymanoğlu in hospital and received the news while delivering a speech at a ruling party meeting in his hometown Rize, expressed his condolences on live television over Süleymanoğlu’s death.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said Turkey is “grateful to Süleymanoğlu for making the country and the nation proud.”
“Turkish weightlifting has suffered a great loss,” the head of the Turkish weightlifting federation Tamer Taşpınar told the Anadolu Agency.
“He was the ‘pocket Hercules’ who broke 46 records. He was a sportsman who won the hearts not just of the Turkish people but the world,” Taşpınar added.
The path to stardom for Süleymanoğlu, who was born Naim Suleimanov as a member of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, was not smooth.
He initially competed for Bulgaria but defected from the then-communist Bulgaria in December 1986 during the Weightlifting World Cup in Melbourne.
In an episode that caused a sensation at the time, Süleymanoğlu left for London aboard the Turkish prime minister’s jet, which then took him on to Turkey where he was given a hero’s welcome.
Bulgaria fumed over his defection and Süleymanoğlu was initially suspended for a year. But he then stormed to victory at the 1988 Olympics.
The tiny Süleymanoğlu wowed spectators with his power and was one of few weightlifters who managed to clean and jerk three times his own bodyweight.
He built up one of the sport’s greatest ever rivalries with Greece’s Valerios Leonidis which was followed avidly by Turkish and Greek communities across the world.
Speaking to daily Hürriyet, Leonidis said Süleymanoğlu was “a gift from God” to him.
“Due to the competition with him, I worked harder and harder. I could not have achieved this much if I had not competed against him,” the Greek wightlifter, who attended the funeral ceremony, added.
After picking up a third Olympic title in Atlanta, he tried a comeback at the 2000 Sydney Games but suffered a rare failure. He failed to lift 145kg in three attempts and left Australia empty-handed.
He subsequently dabbled in politics, paying particular attention to the welfare of the Turkish minority in neighboring Bulgaria and standing as a candidate for parliament for the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Süleymanoğlu is the only weightlifter to win gold medals at three different Olympic Games. He was granted the Olympic Order by then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001.
His exploits in Seoul in 1988 made him one of the stars of the games and Time magazine put him on the cover of its Games issue with one arm aloft in triumph under the headline: “Everybody Wins.”