A BIG WEIGHT IS LIFTED : Bulgaria to Turkey--It’s a Heavy Trip

Times Staff Writer

The greatest weightlifter of our day, perhaps of any day, looked more as if he should be riding one of the horses in next Saturday’s Belmont Stakes than hoisting three times his body weight.

He also looked uncomfortable as he sat in a small office overlooking the Straits of Bosporus and answered questions from two American reporters on a hot, humid afternoon. He was wearing a heavy wool suit that was too big for his 5-foot 1-inch, 132-pound frame.

Naim Suleymanoglu, formerly known as Naim Suleimanov and Naum Shalamanov, did not often see reporters from other countries while he was living in Bulgaria. But he defected to Turkey last December, and it appears now that he will have to get used to it.


When a reporter asked recently whether it would be possible to interview Suleymanoglu (pronounced Soo-la- ma -no-lu), a sportswriter for an Istanbul newspaper said he would arrange it with Turkish weightlifting officials.

Later that afternoon, the Istanbul sportswriter reported that Suleymanoglu would be available two days later at his apartment in the capital city of Ankara, about a 45-minute flight from Istanbul. But the next morning, the sportswriter said that officials had decided to bring Suleymanoglu to Istanbul that afternoon.

“It will be more convenient for you,” he said. “And it is good propaganda for us.”

The Turks are sensitive because the world knows so much about their alleged atrocities against Armenians early in this century but so little about the Bulgarians’ alleged atrocities against Turks today.

This is the story the Turks want told.

Seventeen years ago, when he was 3, Suleymanoglu moved with his parents, a brother and a sister from the small Bulgarian village of Ptichar to the larger village of Momchilgrad, which is in the Kurdzhali province, about 35 miles north of the border with Greece.

Most of the people in the province, which was named for a Turkish military commander in the early years of the Ottoman Empire and did not become part of Bulgaria until 1913, are of Turkish descent. Many of the villages, including Momchilgrad, are almost entirely Turkish.

Although Turkey has moved toward modernization, particularly in the cities, change came slower to the Turks in Kurdzhali. During Suleymanoglu’s years in Momchilgrad, he and his family lived in a stone hut with a chipped-stone roof. It was not unusual to see men leading donkeys laden with firewood down the cobblestone streets. The dress was Turkish traditional: wide pantaloons and full blouses. Women wore veils.

Suleymanoglu’s father, a miner, and his mother, who works in a hothouse, are devout Moslems. They were proud of their family name, Suleiman, which was the same as that of a 16th-Century Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.

Naim Suleimanov, son of Suleiman, also was magnificent. After he was discovered in his hometown’s gymnastics school by a weightlifting coach, he was taken at age 11 to a more advanced sports school in Kurdzhali, a town of 40,000 at the center of the province.

At 14, he won the world junior championship. At 15, he set a world record in his weight class. At 16, while competing at 123 pounds, he became only the second man ever to lift three times his body weight, 370 pounds in the clean and jerk. That was 1984, when he would have been favored to win three gold medals in the Los Angeles Olympic Games if Bulgaria had not boycotted.

“A wonder child,” Bulgarian weightlifter Boris Blagoev called him in 1984.

According to human rights groups, in December of that year the Bulgarian government began a campaign to assimilate 900,000 ethnic Turks living in the country of 9 million. A Helsinki Watch report last year said that Bulgarian authorities became alarmed when a 1984 census revealed that the Moslem birthrate was higher than that of the rest of the population.

Amnesty International reported last year that bans on Moslem holidays and burials were enforced, mosques were closed, Turkish dress was outlawed, as was speaking the Turkish language, and all Turkish names were ordered changed to Bulgarian names. The report said that Turks who resisted were imprisoned or executed.

Bulgarian officials deny all charges, contending that there are no ethnic Turks in the country, only Bulgarians of the Islamic faith who were suppressed by five centuries of Turkish rule but have voluntarily chosen to re-establish their Bulgarian culture and traditions. They say there has been no resistance from the Moslems.

Shedding his suit coat and sipping an orange drink, Suleymanoglu told the reporters his story.

He said that he was on the train from Sofia in December 1984, traveling home from a weightlifting training camp, when a demonstration by the Turks in Momchilgrad came to a violent conclusion.

“I got off the train at 11 o’clock in the evening,” he said through an interpreter. “I was alone, getting off the train. A policeman saw me and asked me, ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know that nobody can go out after 7 o’clock?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve just come in by train.’

“Another policeman said, ‘Aren’t you the weightlifter?’ They asked me how I was. So they were friendly. Then they said, ‘Don’t tell this to anyone, that we saw you here.’ They said after 7 o’clock that Turks are not like Bulgarians, that Turks cannot go out of their houses.

“Then I went into the village. I saw everywhere holes in the cement. I saw the windows had bullet holes made in them. It was like a war, like a battlefield.”

Yuksel Hasanov Mustafov, one of two Bulgarian wrestlers who defected to Turkey in 1985, also spoke of the Momchilgrad demonstration in the Helsinki Watch report.

“The police took photos during the demonstration by the Turks and then used horses against the demonstrators,” he said. “Then there was military intervention. My sister-in-law heard shooting all day. She said that many people were sent to Belene Island, a prison island filled with Turks, mud and mosquitoes.”

Perhaps because Suleymanoglu was privileged as a champion weightlifter, he said he was not initially forced to change his name. But he said he was told by Bulgarian officials that he and his family eventually would have to comply with the law.

That was on his mind when he traveled with the Bulgarian weightlifting team in 1985 to a 10-day training camp in Melbourne, Australia, where he met several Bulgarian defectors of Turkish descent who encouraged him to remain with them instead of returning home.

He said he told them he could not take such a drastic step until he knew whether the Bulgarians actually would change his family’s name.

He did not have to wait much longer. Upon returning to Bulgaria, his passport was confiscated. When it was returned, Naim Suleimanov had become Naum Shalamanov.

“I knew they would change my name,” he said. “They changed 900,000 Turks’ names. So it was my turn for them to change my name, too. But I waited. I was like a fool. When I saw my new name, then I decided to escape.”

Suleymanoglu said he knew then that he would attempt his escape upon his return to Melbourne in December, 1986, for weightlifting’s World Cup. But for more than a year, he would have to keep his plan a secret, even from his younger brother Muharen, also a weightlifter.

“Perhaps my brother would tell this to one of his friends,” Suleymanoglu said. “Everyone can make mistakes. That’s why I didn’t tell anyone about my idea.”

Asked if the Bulgarians had been suspicious of him, he said: “They suspected in 1985 because they knew I was not happy when they changed my name. They searched everything about me, examined me. I tried not to make them suspicious. Until the last moment, I tried not to act suspicious.”

He went to a meet in Sofia, where he lifted more than three times his body weight for the fourth time, 414 pounds in the clean and jerk, then spent two days at home before leaving for Melbourne, not knowing whether he would ever see his family again.

“I couldn’t believe it when we landed in Australia,” he said. “I had no money in my pockets. I had one suit of clothes. I couldn’t take any luggage, any things with me.”

On his first day in Melbourne, one of the defectors he had met the year before visited him at the hotel.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to prey on you,’ ” Suleymanoglu said. “He said, ‘Just tell me, do you want to escape or not?’ I said, ‘I’ve made up my mind. Please help me.’ I couldn’t speak much because of the Bulgarian policemen and the other people around me.”

He arranged with the man to meet again at a banquet in a Melbourne restaurant after the meet, which, despite the distraction of his impending escape, Suleymanoglu won, setting another world record, this time in the snatch with a lift of 148 pounds. It was his 11th world record, his fifth in the open division, even though he technically will be a junior until next January.

“After eating dinner, I saw my friend,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s go out into the lobby for fresh air.’ We had agreed to go back to the hotel before we did anything. But in seeing him, I couldn’t stand any more. I said, ‘This is the time.’ ”

The friend said he would go for his car and told Suleymanoglu to meet him outside in five minutes.

There was a nervous moment when one of the other Bulgarian weightlifters spotted Suleymanoglu in the lobby and asked where he was going.

“I said, ‘I’m busy. I have some work to do.’ I got in the car, and we went away.”

While the Melbourne police, at the insistence of Bulgarian embassy and Australian weightlifting officials, searched for Suleymanoglu, he hid at his friend’s house for 48 hours before going to the police station.

“I told everything to them,” he said. “They said, ‘You are free in this country. You have a visa for 15 days more.’ ”

Twenty-four hours later, officials from the Turkish embassy bought him a ticket and put him on a plane for Ankara.

When Suleymanoglu got off the plane in Ankara, Turkish weightlifting officials reacted as if they had discovered gold, which, in a way, they had.

Since the Turks became serious about the Olympics in 1936, they have won 44 medals, all but three of them in their national sport, wrestling. They have never even come close to winning a weightlifting medal.

Suleymanoglu could win three golds if he is allowed to compete next summer in Seoul, South Korea.

That is a big if , though.

At the International Weightlifting Federation’s executive board meeting last March in Athens, Greece, the Bulgarian representative, Christo Merenzev, charged that the Turks had kidnapped Suleymanoglu and demanded his return. When the IWF president said that was a political matter, beyond the realm of the federation’s authority, Merenzev said that Suleymanoglu should not be allowed to compete for Turkey.

The executive board reached a compromise, declaring Suleymanoglu ineligible for two years from the time of his defection, enabling him to return to international competition in December 1988. That is two months after the Summer Olympics are scheduled to end.

But the executive board also ruled that Suleymanoglu could regain his eligibility immediately if the Bulgarians approve.

Lobbying on his behalf has been Clarence H. Johnson, the U.S. representative to the IWF executive board.

“The Bulgarians tell me they want what’s best for the kid,” Johnson said by telephone from his Detroit office. “If that’s the case, they might as well let him compete in the Olympics. I would hope he could compete as early as this fall in the World Championships at Ostrava (Czechoslovakia). He isn’t from Turkey, but he is a Turk.”

In the meantime, Suleymanoglu has competed in Turkey’s junior championships, setting national records in all three categories of his 132-pound weight class.

“In boxing, Muhammad Ali Clay is No. 1; in football, Maradona; in presidents, Mr. Reagan,” said Arif Nusret Say, president of Turkey’s weightlifting federation. “In weightlifting, it is Naim.”

When Suleymanoglu was asked why the Bulgarians have so much success in weightlifting and the Turks so little, Say interrupted.

“I ask the same question to you,” he said. “What about American weightlifting compared to Bulgarians?”

In fact, only the other Communist countries can compete with the Bulgarians in weightlifting. In the recent European Championships, Bulgaria won 7 of 10 gold medals.

“In democratic countries, we like freedom,” Say said. “You can’t force us to work in a field. In socialist countries, they have a state program. They use man as robots, things.”

Suleymanoglu, who listened to the exchange, was asked if he felt like a robot in Bulgaria. He laughed.

“I like weightlifting,” he said. “I did the sport liking it.”

Weightlifting officials from other countries have suggested in the past that the Bulgarians have achieved dominance in the sport through chemistry, feeding their athletes anabolic steroids and other so-called performance enhancing drugs. Suleymanoglu denied it.

“I don’t know anything about these illegal drugs,” he said. “I think it was working hard that made us successful.”

Asked if he was told to take any supplements with his meals, he said: “Protein and vitamins. All sportsmen take them.” He said he was never asked to take injections of any kind.

But he said he learned training techniques in Bulgaria that he believes are unique and is sharing them with his Turkish teammates in Ankara.

The national weightlifting federation provided Suleymanoglu with a one-bedroom apartment, a Ford, a monthly salary of $1,000, about three times more than the average Turk earns, and the Turkish spelling of his original family name.

Still, the adjustment has been difficult.

“Of course, I am homesick,” he said. “I miss my family. This is the problem. I have to stand this until my family is allowed to come to Turkey. I miss my hometown, too. I lived better than the normal person there because I was an athlete. I had a car and my own apartment. But after the names were changed there, many of the people became enemies to each other. I was suspicious of everybody.”

He said he occasionally is able to reach his family by telephone.

“It is difficult to talk to them because I’m sure the authorities are listening,” he said. “But when they hear my voice on the phone, I can tell they are happy.”

Asked if he believes his family will be treated more harshly because of his defection, he said, “I don’t think they’ll punish my family, but I don’t know anything about this.”

Say said he spoke to Bulgarian weightlifting officials earlier this year in Paris and was assured that no action had been taken against the family.

“They said Naim is getting in touch with his family and that he knows they are fine,” Say said. “So I understand from that they listen to his conversations.”

Although Suleymanoglu is homesick, he is not lonely.

He already is a national hero, not only because of his athletic ability but also because of his escape from Bulgaria. When he was introduced during the opening ceremony of the International Olympic Committee’s 92nd Session last month in Istanbul, he was given a standing ovation. His picture is in the newspapers at least once a week. He has dinner once a month with the prime minister, Turgut Ozal.

“I couldn’t have expected this,” he said. “Fifty million Turkish people love me and treat me like a hero. Mr. Prime Minister calls me his stepson. In the street, when I walk, people shake hands with me. They look at me like a movie star.”

Asked if he enjoys the attention, he wrinkled his nose and said: “In some ways, it’s good. But in some ways, it’s not so good.”

One thing he thinks is good is fan mail.

“I get mostly letters from teen-age girls,” he said.

He responds to as many as he can.

“I have lots of girlfriends,” he said. “I am, you know, 20 years old.”

And living the life of a wealthy, famous, young Turk.