THE SEOUL GAMES / DAY 5 : YOU NAME IT, HE LIFTS IT : Suleymanoglu Sets 3 World Records, Gives Turkey 1st Weightlifting Gold

Times Staff Writer

Naim Suleymanoglu was on a mission. His goal was not just to lift more than any other person his weight had ever lifted, his goal was to obliterate from the record books a name he hated--Naum Shalamanov.

That was his name before he defected from Bulgaria to Turkey in 1986. That was the Christian name the Bulgarians made him use, instead of the name he preferred, his Moslem name.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 22, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 22, 1988 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 13 Column 3 Sports Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
The colors of the national flag of Turkey were incorrectly identified in Wednesday’s editions. The correct colors are red and white.

That, he says, is why he defected.

And that was just part of the reason the Weightlifting Gymnasium in Olympic Park came to life Tuesday night with the excitement of hundreds of Turkish fans, waving their red and yellow flags, laughing and crying and kissing and hugging as the muscle-bound little man they worship beat his former Bulgarian teammate to give Turkey its first gold medal in two decades and its first gold in weightlifting.


Then there were his 3 world records.

Before he began lifting Tuesday, he was already the only competitor ever to lift 3 times his body weight in 2 weight divisions (123 and 132 pounds). Only a few have ever lifted 3 times their weight, though it is relatively common for Suleymanoglu.

But for anyone, this was an uncommon day.

He completed the competition in the 132-pound division by holding a record 419 pounds--more than 3 times his body weight--over his head in the clean and jerk, a two-phase lift.

He had lifted a record 336 pounds in the snatch, a continuous motion lift. It gave him a record total of 755 pounds.

His record in the snatch had been 330 pounds, set this year in Cardiff, Turkey.

But he had been known as Naum Shalamanov in 1986, when he set his former record of 414 pounds in the clean and jerk.

The name Shalamanov has been replaced by Suleymanoglu in the record books.

But his fans have another name for him, Pocket Hercules. At only 4-feet 11-inches tall, he has a boyish face and an easy smile, but he is 21 years old and his short arms and legs are so muscular that there is no way to mistake him for a youngster lost among men.

His presence on the stage is captivating, even though his ritual is devoid of the posturing and shouting and heavy breathing so many lifters use to psych themselves. Instead, with his mouth wide in a silent scream and his eyes straight ahead, he simply pulls up the bar.

He makes the snatch look easy, throwing the weight over his head.

The clean and jerk, with so much more weight involved, is more dramatic. He lifts it to his shoulders, then bends almost backward as he struggles to get his feet set under it, and while the quiet crowd concentrates on his effort, he gives it the final push. His smile of success lights up the arena.

Suleymanoglu dominated the competition Tuesday. If he had stopped after his first lift of 320 pounds, he still would have won the snatch portion of the competition. The silver medalist, his former teammate on the Bulgarian team, Stefan Topourov, had lifted 303 pounds with his third and final attempt. And the bronze medalist, Ye Huanming of China, had stopped at 281 pounds.

But after Suleymanoglu had brought the fans to their feet with his first snatch, he dropped the weight and acknowledged them with a nonchalant wave that assured them he would be back. He returned to set the world record with a lift of 332 pounds, but then he came back out to lift 336 and throw kisses.

For almost an hour, the rest of the field went through clean and jerk attempts and failures as everyone waited for the return of Topourov and Suleymanoglu.

Topourov lifted 364 pounds, assuring himself of the silver medal. Suleymanoglu lifted 386. Topourov matched 386, but it took an awesome effort as he staggered around the stage under the weight.

Another 5 1/2 pounds were added to the bar, but Topourov passed. He was done.

Then the weight was increased to 416 pounds, so that Suleymanoglu of Turkey could break the world record of 414 that Shalamanov of Bulgaria had set just before his defection. That lift brought down the house.

But he had 1 attempt left, and he wasn’t about to disappoint the people of Turkey in their moment of triumph over Bulgaria. He raised the record to 419 pounds.

His total of 755 was 66 pounds better than Topourov.

After his victories Tuesday, Suleymanoglu said: “I would like to ask the Bulgarian authorities to allow my family to come to Turkey, at least so that I could see them.”

He hasn’t seen his parents or his brother since he defected.

Suleymanoglu defected on Dec. 6, 1986, by sneaking out of a banquet after winning the title at the World Cup in Melbourne, Australia. He went to Turkish authorities, who granted him asylum and flew him to London, where the private plane of the Turkish prime minister, Turgut Ozal, picked him up. It was his choice to make his name Suleymanoglu, the Turkish version of his name.

But Suleymanoglu is not his original name. It was Naim Suleimanov when he was born in the village of Ptichar in the mountains of Bulgaria. His parents, both small (his mother is 4-7 1/2, his father 5-0), belong to the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. They are Moslems and they speak Turkish at home. But the Bulgarian government outlawed their language, their schools and their mosques.

When they changed his name, in 1984, it was too much.

The relations between Turkey and Bulgaria on the subject of Suleymanoglu are fascinating. Suleymanoglu travels with personal bodyguards to prevent Bulgaria from kidnaping him, and that security has been increased for his Olympic stay.

Yet, under International Olympic Committee rules, Suleymanoglu would have had to wait 3 years from the time of his defection to be able to compete for his new country--unless Bulgaria gave him permission to compete. Bulgaria did that.

It is said to be common knowledge among weightlifting officials that a large sum of money, perhaps more than $1 million, changed hands to bring that about.

When asked why he thought Bulgaria had let him compete, Suleymanoglu said: “I did (sit out) for 1 year. But I was happy I was able to compete here. I think it was in the sake of sports that it was done.”

Which brings up the other aspect the money is said to have bought--an agreement that Suleymanoglu will not criticize Bulgaria.

He even gave credit to his Bulgarian coaches for helping him as much as they did in the early years. But he added: “When I defected from Bulgaria, people said I would not have the same standards anymore, that I would not have the right coach, that I would not make world records. But I am making more records.”

Asked what he thought was the source of his incredible strength, Naim Suleymanoglu said: “It was the 55 million Turkish people. I knew that they were all watching on TV to see if I can make another record, and I felt that strength.”