Pocket Hercules on the straight and narrow to Sydney fame


SYDNEY, AFP

Born-again Olympian Naim Suleymanoglu canceled his membership of several leading nightclubs to seek entry into the “legends only” Golden Quartet Club at the Sydney Games.

Turkey’s “Pocket Hercules” went from golden boy to playboy after winning his third successive weightlifting gold medal in a classic featherweight duel with Valerios Leonidis of Greece at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

But after nearly three years of the high life, the diminutive Suleymanoglu heard the call of Sydney and he will try to become just the fourth athlete in Olympic history to win consecutive gold medals in the same individual event.

Sailor Paul Elvstrom of Denmark, American discus thrower Al Oerter and the great Carl Lewis, in the long jump, all won four times in a row.

“It is history that I have been training for,” said Suleymanoglu in a recent interview. “I know all about Carl Lewis and Al Oerter. I think a lot about them. I would like to do what they did.”

Suleymanoglu is arguably Turkey’s best known and best loved athlete and an estimated million people greeted him at Ankara airport on his return from winning his first gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The joy was heightened as Suleymanoglu was Bulgarian by birth and had defected to Turkey two years earlier during a crackdown on ethnic Turks like the young lifter.

The Bulgarian Government only gave their permission for Suleymanoglu to represent Turkey in 1988 after they were reportedly paid one million US dollars in compensation by the Turkish authorities.

Suleymanoglu proved himself a fiercely patriotic competitor and his three consecutive Olympic gold medals elevated him to superstar status in Turkey and saw him collect the unofficial title of “lifter of the century.”

When he retired from competition after the Atlanta Olympics and headed for the clubs of Ankara, several sensational stories started to emerge about the weightlifter but he has remained a hero of the country.