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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Little Man Lifts Gold For Turkey

ATLANTA -- Naim Suleymanoglu is on the verge of making Olympic history as the first weight lifter to win three golds -- in spite of his habit of breaking off training for a quick drag of filterless Turkish cigarettes.


It's a problem, he says. But his hefty shoulders have shrugged off greater loads -- from the six world-record weights he hoisted in Seoul for his first Olympic title, to the burden of being a persecuted ethnic Turk in his native Bulgaria.


With opponents now breathing down his neck in an event where he has had things all his own way since 1983, how does he rate his chances of winning?


"Ninety-nine percent is my chance," he says without a flicker of irony, smiling engagingly and putting his hand on his heart to show where his belief comes from. "No one has ever won three golds before," he adds with disarming certainty.


Suleymanoglu may be just 1.53 meters tall and competing in the 64 kilogram featherweight division, but his tree-trunk legs give him the proportions of a barrel.


He earned his nickname, "Pocket Hercules," with his phenomenal performance at the 1988 Olympics.


Four years later he was almost as devastating.


With the weight on the bar being raised all the time, he waited until all his opponents had made their lifts before taking the stage himself -- the equivalent of Sergei Bubka entering the pole vault with the bar at 5.90 meters.


Suleymanoglu has been used to being the best since his childhood in a small Bulgarian mountain village. At 14, he was world junior champion, at 15 he set his first world record, and at 16 he became only the second man in history to lift three times his bodyweight.


He could now be competing for his fourth gold medal if Bulgaria had not joined the eastern bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when, aged 17, he was the firm favorite.


Politics also reared their ugly head in the shape of Bulgaria's persecution of its 900,000-strong Turkish minority.


It all became too much when the communist authorities, not above altering the names on Turkish gravestones to Bulgarian spellings, changed his name to Naum Shalamanov.


"When they changed my name, I had to go," he said. At the 1986 world championships in Melbourne, with the title in his pocket, he defected. Within a day he was on a plane to Turkey.


Assured of hero status in his adopted homeland, he became an idol -- and a wealthy man -- when he won gold in Seoul, Turkey's first for 20 years.