Naim Suleymanoglu, the Turkish weightlifter who won three Olympic gold medals and was known as “Pocket Hercules,” died Saturday. He was 50.
Suleymanoglu was considered one of the sport’s greatest athletes and earned his nickname for his strength and diminutive size. He died at an Istanbul hospital where he was receiving treatment for cirrhosis of the liver. He had been in intensive care since Sept. 28 and received a liver transplant in October, according to Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency.
The weightlifter – 1.47 meters (4-foot-10) tall – won three straight Olympic gold medals for Turkey between 1988 and 1996. The Bulgarian-born Suleymanoglu could lift three times his weight.
He came out of retirement to try for a fourth gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 but missed all three of his lifts.
“I know only gold,” Suleymanoglu had said as he returned to competition. “I do not know about silver or bronze.”
Suleymanoglu also won seven world and six European championships.
He was born to an ethnic Turkish family in Bulgaria, and defected to Turkey in 1986 while training in Australia.
Regarded as a national hero in his adopted country, Suleymanoglu captured the hearts of Turks after winning his first gold at Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. Whenever Suleymanoglu returned home from a tournament, he would be greeted by thousands of fans who would lift him up on their shoulders.
Suleymanoglu missed the 1984 Games at Los Angeles because of a Soviet-led boycott. Although only 17, he was the favorite to win the bantamweight gold.
He was an outspoken critic of the Bulgarian government’s treatment of the Turkish minority in his homeland, and was forced by the authorities to change his surname to the more Slavic-sounding Shalamanov.
When the Bulgarian weightlifting team went to a training camp at Melbourne, Australia, in 1986, he slipped away from the group while pretending to visit the restroom at a hotel.
Suleymanoglu hid in Australia for several days before he went to the Turkish consulate to seek asylum. Eventually the Bulgarians allowed him to switch nationalities and he kissed the airport tarmac on arrival in Turkey. In 1986 he changed his name to the more Turkic-sounding Suleymanoglu.
He went to the Seoul Olympics as a Turk and twice broke the world record in the snatch on the way to winning the gold medal.
He competed unsuccessfully for a seat in Turkish parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2007.