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The new, brightly colored weightlifting hall hard by the Black Sea on the grounds of the Grand Hotel in Varna, Bulgaria was quiet. Most of the men who had filled the hall with clanging action only minutes before had drifted out to stretch themselves on the dark green grass, have a smoke and enjoy a few minutes of rest in the late spring sun, but two remained. One, whose creased, wan face and haunting eyes made him seem a decade older than his age of 52, drew on a tablet that was carefully watched by the other, whose stature and physical proportions gave him the appearance not of a man or even an adolescent, but of a boy, perhaps even a child. Yet this boy-child—barely 5 feet and weighing only 123 pounds—had, less than 10 minutes before, lifted 375 pounds, more than three times his own bodyweight, from the floor to full arms' length overhead.
What the man drew and the boy watched was a stick-figure explanation of a slight flaw in the lifting technique the boy had used, a flaw that, when corrected, the man explained, could result in even greater poundage. At last the man turned in his chair to face the boy. "Never be satisfied. Never," he said firmly, leveling his old, knowing eyes on the barely opened but hyperalert ones of the boy, who nodded somberly, turned and went outside to join the others.
The man in the training hall was Ivan Abadjiev, head coach of the Bulgarian National Weightlifting Team, which, the week before, had won the European championships in Vitoria, Spain, taking six of the 10 weight classes—and sending the Soviet coaches and officials into apoplexy. The boy was 16-year-old Naim Suleimanov, who, at Vitoria, had become pound for pound the greatest weightlifter in history. Together, Abadjiev and Suleimanov symbolize not only the remarkable success the Bulgarian weightlifting team has had over the past 10 to 12 years against other Eastern bloc strongmen, but also the almost total devaluation of the Olympic medals to be awarded this summer in weightlifting as a result of the Soviet-led boycott of the Olympics.
In Los Angeles, the wunderkind Suleimanov would have stood out with a special brilliance. This is so not because Suleimanov happens to be the best weightlifter in the world, but because he happens to be the best weightlifter in the world at the age of 16.
What Suleimanov has done is unprecedented; in fact, it is almost unbelievable. One might as well expect a world-class jockey to emerge from a group of sumo wrestlers, or a record-holding high jumper to appear among the Ituri rainforest Pygmies, or a contender for a gold medal in boxing to step forth from Culture Club as expect a boy to lift weights that not even the strongest of mature men can lift. Before Suleimanov, "world record-holding 16-year-old weightlifter" would have been a contradiction in terms.
Unlike the mayfly sports of swimming and gymnastics, in which we have come to expect athletes to reach and pass their peaks before they reach their majority, or even tennis, in which teenage phenoms are an almost yearly occurrence, weightlifting at the highest levels was thought to require the full-grown, well-seasoned muscles of a man in his 20s or even 30s. After all, were not the greatest lifters—Tommy Kono, John Davis, Waldemar Baszanowski, Paul Anderson, David Rigert and the one and only Vasily Alexeyev—well and truly grown when they were at their finest? And were not the triumphs of young men like America's Pete George, who was 18 when he won a gold medal in the 1947 world championships, so rare as to be the exceptions that proved the rule that lifting would never become a playground for children?
Yet Suleimanov exists, a vest-pocket Hercules laboring to shatter our concept of human possibilities. And as incredible as his lifting is for a 16-year-old, it was perhaps even more startling when he was 15 and already held a world record; or when at 14 he exploded onto the international scene with a performance at the world junior championships in S�o Paulo that, when reported on wire services around the world, was dismissed everywhere but in Bulgaria as a misprint. But it was no typographical error. Lifting in the 52-kilo (114-pound) class, Suleimanov not only won the 19-and-under world championship but also fell just 5� pounds short of the world record in the total in the open division, with 551. He then tried to break that record, and though he failed, he did not fail to get the attention of the weightlifting community, once its members had been assured by more complete reports that indeed a boy barely in his teens had equaled a senior world record.
How did this happen, everyone wanted to know. And was Suleimanov really only 14? And what new wonder drug must he be taking to do so stupendous a thing? And was it "healthy" for a boy so young to be lifting weights? And so on. To find the answers to such questions, a good place to begin might be the tiny Bulgarian mountain village of Ptichar, in what was once known as Thrace, where Naim was born in November 1967.
Like many villages in rural Bulgaria, Ptichar is populated by men and women who are hardly strangers to a life of manual labor and simple peasant food. It is exceptional only because, being roughly 75 miles from the Turkish border, it has far more people of Turkish descent than would be found in other areas of Bulgaria, a country with a population of 8,900,000 and a land mass comparable to that of Tennessee. Bulgaria was ruled by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire for almost 500 years, until, with the help of Russian armies, the Bulgarians were able to drive the hated Turks out in 1877 and '78. Even today many Bulgarians remember with bitterness the cruelties their forebears suffered under Turkish dominion, and there is almost no intermarriage with countrymen of Turkish ancestry.
In short, people of Turkish descent are perceived by the average Bulgarian as second-class citizens. Naim Suleimanov is Turkish. Turkish and poor. And small. A weightlifting coach who teaches in K?rdzhali, a town near Suleimanov's village, remembers what an unusual boy he was, and how desperate he was to get involved in weightlifting, which, along with wrestling, is one of Bulgaria's most prestigious sports. "When he was only nine," Enver Tulumov says, "he was pestering me about lifting the weights. But he was only 115 centimeters [3'9"] and 25 kilos [55 pounds], and I was telling him no, he was too young and small. But always he was asking."