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Hercules Can’t Pocket This One

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Naim Suleymanoglu, the 4-foot-11 weightlifter from Turkey by way of Bulgaria who over three previous Olympic Games had become a phenomenon known worldwide as “Pocket Hercules,” had promised that the Sydney Games would bring him a fourth gold medal.

Instead, he failed miserably.

And what transpired Sunday night at the Sydney Convention Center was a bizarre show that served less to illustrate the uplifting power of sports--though much raw strength was indeed on display--than to illustrate the importance of ego, finance and entertainment in the thoroughly modern Olympics.

It was a show spiced with blaring rock music and flashing TV screens--an obvious effort to promote weightlifting, as primitive a sport as there is, as a hip thing to do and watch. It was also marked by the incessant ringing of cellular phones in the audience and marred by the latest doping transgressions to hit the sport.

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In the competition itself, a great champion learned a humbling lesson about arrogance. Suleymanoglu made a tactical decision to start high--at 145 kilograms (319 pounds) in the snatch, in which the barbell is raised in one constant motion. Three times he tried. Three times he could not deliver.

Just like that, he was out. While the world’s other top weightlifters in the featherweight--62-kilo, or 137-pound--class moved on to the clean-and-jerk, in which the bar is raised to the collarbone and then overhead, Suleymanoglu walked out into the night air and off the world stage.

With Suleymanoglu gone, Nikolay Pechalov of Croatia won the gold--Croatia’s first individual gold medal in any sport.

Pechalov lifted a combined 325 kilos, a staggering 715 pounds, an Olympic record.

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Leonidas Sabanis of Greece took the silver and Sevdalin Minchev Angelov of Bulgaria the bronze. Both lifted a combined 317 1/2 kilos, or 698 1/2 pounds. The Greek took silver because he weighs slightly less than the Bulgarian.

Weightlifting’s classes have been shuffled for the second time since 1992, so every gold medalist in the Games will set an Olympic record.

The International Weightlifting Federation keeps shuffling the weight classes in an apparent bid to distance the sport from drug abuse--and tainted records.

But the competition Sunday night took place only hours after the federation announced it had been forced to kick the entire Romanian weightlifting team out of the Games. Two Romanian lifters tested positive in recent weeks for drugs, the federation said; a third had tested positive earlier this year. Under federation rules, three positive tests in one year bring an automatic one-year suspension for an entire squad.

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The federation also announced Sunday that lifters from Norway and Taiwan had also tested positive for drugs.

Today brought a series of twists. The Romanians paid a $50,000 fine to the federation. The federation then said the “clean” Romanians--three men and one woman--could compete. The IOC medical director countered, saying the Romanians were not allowed to buy their way back in. But, later in the day, Romanian Marioara Munteanu did indeed take part in the women’s featherweight (116 1/2-pound) competition.

On Sunday night, the Croats essentially bought the gold.

Pechalov had lifted for Bulgaria in Atlanta in 1996 and in Barcelona in 1992, winning bronze four years ago (as a bantamweight, a lower weight class) and silver in 1992 (as a featherweight, finishing behind Suleymanoglu).

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After Atlanta, he moved to Croatia. The Bulgarians sought compensation to allow a waiver permitting Pechalov to compete in international competition. The Croats paid $50,000, one of their officials said.

Professional tennis player Goran Ivanesevic, a longtime friend of Pechalov’s, helped facilitate the move to Croatia, Pechalov said. The two lift weights together at a club in Split, a town on the Adriatic Sea. “This is perfect!” Ivanesevic exulted in the crowd as Pechalov got his gold medal.

In an obvious effort to market weightlifting as something of a made-for-TV glamour sport, the competition took place amid big-screen TVs and a special camera placed underneath the barbell, the better to show close-in shots of the lifters straining.

Between lifts the incessant cell phones were drowned out by rock music blared over the speakers. After Pechalov, for instance, managed to do what Suleymanoglu could not--lift 145 kilos in the snatch--the speakers pounded out “New Sensation,” a hit song (albeit in 1988) by the Australian rockers INXS.

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After his victory, Pechalov sounded the appropriate notes.

“I am very happy that I have fulfilled all the dreams in my life,” he said. “Tell the people of Croatia I am very, very proud.”

He also said at a news conference: “Naim is still the greatest weightlifter on the planet.”

Suleymanoglu had actually retired after the 1996 Games to live the good life in Turkey, where he has been a national hero since the 1980s.

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After defecting from Bulgaria in 1986--the Turks paid the Bulgarians more than $1 million for him, a significantly heftier investment than the Croats made in Pechalov--he won gold in Seoul in 1988, in Barcelona and in Atlanta.

“If he comes to a roadblock when he is driving, it is removed for him,” a TV sports director in Turkey said of Suleymanoglu. “If he eats in a restaurant, no one will ask him to pay. If he drives beyond the speed limit, police officers wave him on ahead.”

After the 1996 Games, Suleymanoglu stayed away for about three years. He returned to take third in this year’s European championships.

On his first try Sunday night, he stood over the bar and hoisted it but leaned back too far, lost his balance and dropped it. On his second try, again his form was not right and he dropped the bar.

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Before his third try, the fans pleaded: “Naim!” Then, for a moment, he had it up--but then the bar veered back behind his head and he let it go.

On his way out, Suleymanoglu had only this to offer to reporters: “Bye-bye, it’s over.”


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