The Unbelievable Life of Naim Süleymanoğlu, the Strongest Pound-for-Pound Weightlifter Ever

On screen there is a man, a man possessed of incredible athletic ability. In other countries he would be revered and celebrated but here, he is caught between two worlds, two countries, and two systems of governance. His life, his story, is one of Cold War intrigue which he is desperately trying to escape.

That same man is later shown safe in the confines of a new country, embraced by thousands, celebrated as a hero and spoken about in mythical tones. His fame stems from the weightlifting platform and it is there where his dominance shines through. As the movie progresses we see more and more gold medals accumulate, seemingly with ease. The man’s story, which began tragically, ends in unprecedented successes.(1)

Who from the world of weightlifting is worthy of a Hollywood movie? Documentaries exist on numerous strongmen and women — even competitions as the recent BarBend production demonstrated. But Hollywood, blockbusters? The list gets smaller. Sure we have tiny productions on the Weider Brothers, Louis Cyr, and Eugen Sandow. But little else. What about Naim Süleymanoğlu, the ‘pocket Hercules’?

In 2019, a Turkish film was released detailing the extraordinary life and times of Süleymanoğlu. Published to great fanfare, the movie had one simple goal: to document the career of one of weightlifting’s finest ever athletes who, outside the sport of weightlifting, is notably underrepresented. 

There are no English subtitles, but this is a trailer of the Turkish movie about Naim’s life, “Pocket Hercules.”

At a time when the sport of weightlifting has been rocked by accusations of corruption and malpractice, there is a need for heroes. Naim Süleymanoğlu, who sadly passed away in 2017, is one such figure. His life transcended Cold War politics and weightlifting. He became an icon, a man who came to simultaneously embody his country and his sport. 

His is the story of a man who was the first human being to snatch two and a half times his own bodyweight and clean and jerk ten kilos more than three times his bodyweight. A man who won three Olympic medals and seven World Championships. It is, in short, a story worth a Hollywood movie, and an article on BarBend!

Early Life

The first thing to note when detailing Naim Süleymanoğlu’s life is his unusual, and fraught upbringing. Born in Bulgaria to a Turkish family in 1967, Naim’s upbringing was defined by Cold War and ethnic tensions. Bulgaria was, at that time, run by a communist government which modelled itself on the Soviet Union.(2) This would have serious ramifications, positive and negative, on Naim’s early sporting career. 

Initially, few believed that Naim would have a sporting career of any real merit. Although his father was a miner, a highly physical trade, his father was only five feet in height. His mother? Four foot seven. The likelihood of Naim being a physically demanding individual seemed a fanciful prospect.(3)

This appears to have done little to discourage the young Naim. Said to have spent a great deal of his childhood lifting rocks and tree branches, Naim was drawn to weightlifting from an early age. In a later interview with Sports Illustrated, Naim claimed that by the age of ten, he wanted to lift whatever heavy weights he could find even if it meant rocks and tree branches.(4)

This drew the young Naim to a nearby weightlifting center where, despite his then three foot nine frame, Naim busied himself carrying heavy plates around the gym floor to build up his strength even more.(5) From humble beginnings Naim’s stature grew, as did his familiarisation with the sport of weightlifting.  

Soon, Naim caught the eye of Bulgaria’s sporting complex. One of the peculiar functions of communist regimes during this era was the attention given over to sport by the government. In the USSR, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and a host of other regions, huge amounts of funding were given over to Olympic sports.(6)

The logic of such actions was simple enough. If a team could succeed at the Olympic Games, it would prove the power, and efficiency, of a Communist government. This explains, in part, why countries like the USSR, East Germany, and Yugoslavia put so much money into Olympic games.

Incidentally, this was well known, and much resented, by those in capitalist states. As coach of the American weightlifting team in the 1950s, Bob Hoffman of York Barbell, regularly criticised the American government for not funding the US weightlifting team at a time when the Soviet Union’s support for its Olympians was growing each year.(7) 

Turning to Bulgaria, it’s emergence in the Olympic weightlifting was relatively late: 1956. By the mid-to-late 1970s however (the time when Naim was coming of age) the country was beginning to become a force within the sport with coach Ivan Abadjiev pioneering weightlifting periodization with his ‘Bulgarian method’ approach.(8) At the 1972 Olympics, the country won three gold and three silver medals in weightlifting. 

When Naim joined a special sport school in Bulgaria at the age of 12, the country had already amassed ten Olympic medals. It was hoped that Naim would build on this tally in future games. Was it fair to put such pressure on a child? In this case… yes. 

At fourteen, Naim competed in, and won, an under nineteen world championship. The next year he broke a new world record in the snatch. It was clear Süleymanoğlu was something special and such was Bulgaria’s faith in the teenager that many believed he would represent the country at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles in the under 56kg category. At 16, this would have made him one of the youngest ever Olympic competitors.(9)

Sadly, politics got in the way. Owing to Cold War disputes, Eastern-bloc countries — those governed by Communist regimes — boycotted the LA Olympics in protest of America’s presence in other nations’ politics.(10) This meant that Naim, whose star was definitely on the rise, was denied the opportunity to compete as Bulgaria withdrew from competition. 

This was, in effect, the beginning of the end for Naim’s time in Bulgaria and the starting point for his own fame. 

One Athlete, Two Countries

The decision to boycott the 1984 Olympics had a profound impact on Naim’s early career. It was, however, not the most important decision the Bulgarian government made that year. In late 1984, the Bulgarian government initiated the ‘Revival Process’ whereby ethnic minorities within the country were required to ‘assimilate’ by changing their names to Bulgarian ones, renounce many of their customs and, even, change their religious beliefs.(11) 

At that time roughly 10% of the population were ethnically Turkish, exercised Turkish customs, spoke the language, and practised Islam. Name changing began almost immediately and Naim, despite his status as an athlete of the future, was forced to comply.  

For a brief part of his life then Naim’s name became Naim Shalamanov. Asked to comment on this name change later in his life, Naim’s answer was simple:

It was an oppression.(12)

His experience rang true. During this time, those who did not comply were subject to persecution, expulsion and imprisonment. 

Like many others, Naim wanted a way out and in this respect he was particularly advantaged. As an international athlete, Naim travelled around the world. Previous Eastern Bloc athletes had used international competitions as an opportunity to escape their country, to plead asylum elsewhere, and begin a new life.(13)

It was for this reason that when Naim traveled to the World Cup weightlifting finals in Melbourne, Australia, in 1986, the team was accompanied by several handlers whose job was to ensure the team’s safety, and more importantly, their loyalty.

Competing in the under 60kg category Naim had a good showing  (something you can see for yourselves below) but it was not a particularly happy time. Persecution in Bulgaria was reaching something of a fever pitch which pushed Naim into something truly extraordinary.  

During the contest, Naim managed to escape the watchful eye of his handlers and sneak to the Turkish Embassy in Canberra. Hiding for several days before he eventually came public, the pocket Hercules briefly became the talk of the sporting world as people sought to discover what had happened to the celebrated weightlifter.(14) 

Initially, the Bulgarian government claimed that Naim had been drugged, kidnapped and taken into Turkish custody. It was a bizarre explanation designed to save face for an embarrassed Communist government. The truth was that Naim had purposely sought out his ancestral home to escape persecution and compete on his own terms.

From Australia, Naim next travelled to London where he caught a connecting flight to Turkey. Flown on the private jet of Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, Naim was treated to a hero’s welcome. On finally arriving in Turkey, he was granted immediate citizenship, changed his name, and began his quest as a Turkish weightlifter.(15) 

Tanyun Bayındır, a Turkish sport journalist later described the escape in thrilling detail:

The escape was planned one year in advance and encrypted correspondences have been exchanged during the period. After Naim wins the title of World Champion in Melbourne, he leaves the Bulgarian Squad by taking advantage of a moment of sheer recklessness and goes to a restaurant, where he later gets rescued from the restroom in the back. They take him to a coffee house in a yellow Datsun car. 

Afterwards, Naim makes for a mosque with another group of people where Turkish Squad are praying. He also prays and leaves the mosque later to be placed in a house and inform the Turkish Embassy. When Embassy officials report the situation to Turgut Özal, The Prime Minister orders him to be brought at once. Naim lands in London first, where he was transferred into a private jet to fly into Istanbul and Ankara eventually … (16)

This was not, of course, the end of his problems. Naim’s family were still in Bulgaria, and remained there for several years. His change of citizenship also meant that he was ineligible to compete in International Weightlifting Federation events for twelve months – which cost him a year of his career. 

Furthermore the Bulgarian government had to release Naim’s eligibility so that he could compete for Turkey at Olympic events. They eventually did this, but for a price: $1.25 million to be exact.(17) Such was the Turkish government’s faith in Naim that they paid over a million dollars for his services in one of the most eventful citizenship transfers in sport history. 

Olympic Glory 

Naim’s path to the 1988 Seoul Olympics was filled with unforeseen bureaucratic red tape, international intrigue, and a huge amount of media interest. It is little exaggeration to say that no single weightlifter has attracted so much attention before an Olympic Games. The obvious question now was, what exactly could he do?

As the world’s eyes began to descend on Naim, the intrigue continued to grow. Competing in the under 60kg category, it became clear that his main competition would be Stefan Topurov, his old teammate from Bulgaria. What’s more, it was claimed that Naim was sick in the build up to the Games. Is it little wonder that people made a movie of his life? 

Despite everything, Naim went on to give one of the greatest Olympic performances weightlifting has ever seen. On the platform Naim set four world records in the snatch and clean and jerk on his way to a gold medal. His final attempt in the clean and jerk saw him lift 190kg overhead.

That was over three times his body weight, pulled and pushed overhead. The Pocket Hercules had lived up to his name with one of the sport’s most impressive lifts of all time.

For the record keepers among us, Naim’s total represented the highest ever score in weightlifting based on the Sinclar Coefficient, the method used to compare athletes across different weight classes weightlifting.(18) For those less mathematically inclined, Naim not only lifted the most weight in the under 60kg category but also the under 67kg class!

After the 1989 World Championships in Athens, when he won gold again, Naim retired from the sport. He was 22 years old and had achieved all that one could in weightlifting. It was quite a career but not perhaps what the Turkish government had in mind when they paid a million dollars for his release.(19) 

Their investment had resulted in one of the greatest Olympic performances weightlifting had ever seen but the question on everyone’s lips in 1990 was, “Is that it?”

The Comeback

After 1989 Naim cited a series of physical and psychological challenges to returning to weightlifting in the future. His push for strength in the late 1980s had already left him with a series of shoulder injuries to contend with.(20) 

Furthermore the intense pressure he placed on himself, and then the celebrity which he enjoyed in Turkey, made the prospect of competing less appealing. After all, Naim’s one performance in 1988 was enough to mark him as a weightlifting great. What else could he do in the sport except compete for pride? Something we cannot underestimate is how popular, and inspirational, Naim was for his new homeland. It was a pride of place that seems to have pushed him into competition once more. 

Naim missed the 1990 World Championships but returned in 1991 on route to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Winning the 1991 World Championships with relative ease, Naim went into the Barcelona Games a strong favorite to retain his gold medal. Confident and enjoying his return from retirement, Naim was no longer at his best, but that was little problem.

In 1988 Naim totaled 342.5 kg in the clean and snatch events. Four years later he managed 320kg from both events. Few athletes have won a contest with a sub-par lift, at least by their own standards. This, I believe, showcases Naim’s incredible athleticism at the ‘88 Games, and again in Barcelona.

Despite totalling 20kg (45 pounds) less in competition, Naim still won comfortably. Taking the gold medal, Naim bested silver medallist, and Bulgarian, lifter Nikolaj Pešalov by 15kg! Reporting on his performance, the LA Times claimed 

Naim Suleymanoglu, the barely 5-foot-tall “Pocket Hercules” from Turkey, brushed off all challengers and turned the featherweight (up to 132 pounds) contest into a one-man show…(21)

Few could disagree. What was terrifying is that Naim, who flirted with the idea of retiring from weightlifting altogether in 1990, went from strength to strength after the 1992 Games. In 1993, 1994, and 1995 Naim won gold in the World Weightlifting Championships. Likewise, he won gold in the 1994 and 1995 European Championships.

Setting his eyes on posterity, Naim even went to the 1996 Olympic Games, this time in the under 64kg category, seeking to win his third Olympic gold medal. Here, at Atlanta, it became clear that Naim’s path to his third medal would be perhaps the most dramatic victory. Now an aging athlete, Naim was pushed to extremes by the Greek weightlifter Valerios Leonidis.

As retold by Nick English on BarBend, 

Leonidis had been closing in on him for years. The year before at the European Weightlifting Championships (1995), he came second to Süleymanoğlu by just 2.5 kilograms. At the World Weightlifting Championships later that same year, the two lifted the exact same total (327.5 kilograms) — Süleymanoğlu won the gold medal solely by virtue of being lighter.

On the podium in 1996 Naim and Leonidis traded lifts, each raising the weight higher and higher. In just a little over five minutes, three world records were broken. It was dramatic, it was impressive, and it was gruelling. In the end, Naim won the duel with a total of 335kg, besting Leonidis by 2.5kg! Lynn Jones, the announcer for the event, told the audience that night that “you have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history“!(22) That a documentary was later made about the Naim/Leonidis final substantiated his claims. 

From the Podium to Politics: After Weightlifting 

All of Naim’s Olympic victories came in his early to late twenties. All the success, adoration and celebrity at such a young age is almost unfathomable. By the time he hit 30, Naim was almost an elder statesman in the sport, having competed at a high level for over fifteen years.

In 2000, Naim attempted to continue his Olympic career, and secure a fourth gold medal. It was here that the ‘pocket Hercules’ finally revealed he was human after all. Said to smoke fifty cigarettes a day to help with his mental health in the build up to the Games, the Naim who stepped onto the podium at the Sydney Olympics was no longer an unstoppable force.(23)

Earlier that year Naim finished third at the Sofia European Championships. Perhaps with a point to prove, Naim’s first effort in Sidney was meant to be a marker in the sand, a declaration to all that his strength was still there.

Choosing to open with 319lbs. in the snatch, a weight higher than any of his eleven competitors chose to open with, Naim failed again, and again, and again, to execute the lift. Without the possibility of lowering the weight, Naim was forced to fail on the podium in front of the world’s eyes. He bombed out of the competition and like that, reporters declared that the ‘Olympic reign of pocket Hercules ends.’(23)

Gone from the sport, Naim was not forgotten. The following year in 2001, Naim was awarded the Olympic Order, the highest honor given to an Olympian for their sporting success. It came soon after Naim was elected to the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame. Both during and after his career, Naim was regarded as one of the sport’s greatest.

Somewhat remarkably, Naim even tried his hand at Turkish politics. From 1999 to 2006 Naim stood, albeit unsuccessfully, in three separate elections. By the time of his third electoral defeat, Naim’s health began to decline, principally his liver. In 2009 Naim was brought into hospital with a high fever and a gamut of problems which eventually culminated in his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 2017. He was only fifty years old

His legacy was profound: three Olympic gold medals, 7 World Championships and 46 World Records. He produced the greatest weightlifting total, pound for pound, that the Olympics has ever seen. His record Sinclair stands to this day.

Furthermore, he helped lift the nation. Naim was more than an athlete in Turkey, he was a symbol of hope and determination.

For the rest of us, Naim serves as affirmation that from little acorns, great oaks grow. 

Featured image via @tarihmecrasi on Instagram

References

  1. The movie is titled Cep Herkülü: Naim Süleymanoglu, and was released in 2019.
  2. Craig Neff, ‘Heroic and Herculean: Weighlifter Naim Suleymanogly was as Mighty as Ever in His First Meet Abroad Since His Daring Defection From Bulgaria,’ Sports Illustrated, May 9, 1988. 
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. On his childhood see Terry Todd, ‘Behold Bulgaria’ Vest Pocket Hercules,’ Sports Illustrated, June11, 1984.
  6. Rider, Toby C. Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and US Foreign Policy. University of Illinois Press, 2016.
  7. Fair, John D. “Bob Hoffman, the York Barbell Company, and the golden age of American weightlifting, 1945-1960.” Journal of Sport history 14.2 (1987): 164-188.
  8. Miller, Carl. The Sport of Olympic-Style Weightlifting. Sunstone Press, 2011.
  9. Neff, ‘Heroic and Herculean.’
  10. D’Agati, Philip. “The cold war and the 1984 Olympic Games.” A Soviet-American Surrogate War New York: Palgrave (2013).
  11. Vasileva, Darina. “Bulgarian Turkish emigration and return.” International migration review 26.2 (1992): 342-352.
  12. Neff, ‘Heroic and Herculean.’
  13. Gary Smith,’ The Weight of the World,’ Sports Illustrated, July 22, 1992.
  14. Ibid. 
  15. Ibid.
  16. ‘The Man Who Lifts the World,’ Socrates
  17. Smith,’ The Weight of the World,’
  18. Szabo, Andras S., and Attila Adamfi. “Investigation of Some Factors, Influencing the Level of Performance and Relative Performance of Top Olympic Weightlifters.” Journal of Sports Research 4.1 (2017): 1-7.
  19. Smith,’ The Weight of the World,’
  20. Ibid.
  21. ‘Barcelona ‘92 Olympics: Daily Report,’ LA Times, July 29, 1992. (21
  22. ‘Naim Suleymanoglu – A Third Gold Medal – Leonidas, World, Competition, and Jones,’ JRank Articles. Sports.jrank.org. 
  23. ‘Olympic Reign of Pocket Hercules Ends,’ The New York Times, September 17, 2000.  

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