There was an air of hushed excitement at the 66th European weightlifting championships in Cardiff, Wales, last week as lifters and fans awaited the appearance of the Pocket Hercules. Rumor had it that the extraordinary little man—a squarish, 5-foot, 20-year-old with one tale of political derring-do, two former names and 27 world records to his credit—had been sequestered in a local hotel room, protected by the two Turkish secret service men who stayed near him 24 hours a day, every day, wherever he went. This much was known for sure about the Pocket Hercules: He had not been seen outside Turkey in more than 16 months.
The anticipation grew. At last, with seven other competitors in the 60-kilogram (132�-pound) weight class, he walked slowly out from a warmup room and onto the floor of the National Sports Centre. Naim Suleymanoglu (na-EEM soo-lay-MAHN-oo-loo), the Bulgarian-born Pocket Hercules, who's pound for pound the greatest weightlifter in the world, could not hold back a smile. He bathed in the warm applause.
This was Suleymanoglu's first international competition since December 1986, when he sneaked out of a postmeet banquet at the World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, to contact Turkish authorities and request political asylum, which they immediately granted. Suleymanoglu's Bulgarian countrymen were stung by his defection. Bulgarian sports officials at first suggested that Suleymanoglu had been drugged and taken against his will. Turkey replied by assigning the Pocket Hercules two bodyguards to thwart any Bulgarian efforts to kidnap him.
To understand Suleymanoglu's decision to defect—and his rare talent—one must trace his roots. He was born Naim Suleimanov in the tiny Bulgarian mountain village of Ptichar, the son of a 4'7�" mother and a father who stood barely five feet. The family was poor—Naim's father worked as a miner and a farmer—and, as members of Bulgaria's Turkish minority, downtrodden. The Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled Bulgaria, often cruelly, for some 500 years until the turn of this century, and resentment of Turks still runs strong. "We are not allowed to speak our language or practice our religion [Islam]," says Suleymanoglu. "The Bulgarians [have] closed our schools, our mosques."
As a child, the future Pocket Hercules entertained himself by lifting rocks, branches—anything heavy he could find. He was drawn to a nearby weight-lifting center, where, though not even 3'9" tall, the 10-year-old carried the heavy plates around like a man. At 14, after two years in one of Bulgaria's 22 special sports schools, Suleimanov won the world 19-and-under title and—almost unbelievably—came within 5� pounds of a world combined-lift record. If not for the Eastern-bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984, Suleimanov would have been the overwhelming favorite at the Olympics in the 123�-pound division, at age 16.
In 1984 his life changed. As part of a government-decreed assimilation campaign, Bulgarian Turks were ordered to use Bulgarian versions of their names. Overnight Naim Suleimanov became Naum Shalamanov. "You ask why did I apply for political asylum," he says. "It is because I had to change my name. It was an oppression."
With the help of Turkish friends he had met on a previous trip to Melbourne, Shalamanov seized his first chance to defect. From Australia he flew to London, where the private jet of Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal picked him up and brought him to Ankara. Upon arriving in his new country, Shalamanov knelt and kissed the tarmac. Shalamanov was granted immediate citizenship.
The Pocket Hercules celebrated his freedom by changing his name to its most Turkish variation. Thus Naum Shalamanov became Naim Suleymanoglu. His joy is tempered only by the fact that his parents and two brothers are still in Bulgaria, unable to join him.
Under the International Weightlifting Federation rules, Suleymanoglu's change of citizenship rendered him ineligible for competition for 12 months, ending last December. Now he had come to Cardiff for a dramatic return. The meet would serve as a final preview for this year's Seoul Olympics.
Suleymanoglu's first event was to be the snatch, which calls for a lifter to raise the bar overhead in one continuous motion. Not only would Suleymanoglu attempt to break the world record of 148 kilograms (326� pounds) that he had set in Melbourne just a few days before defecting, but he also would be facing his old friend and former teammate, Stefan Topurov of Bulgaria. "I didn't want him to be in the same weight category, because we were always very good friends," Suleymanoglu would say later.