Turkey's flame lit by 'The Greatest'

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The Independent Online
At the Turkish hospitality house in Atlanta on Monday, they were swapping stories about Naim Suleymanoglu when the little man walked in. Applause broke out and people pressed forward to shake his strong hand, planting kisses on his cheeks. "Naim, Naim" they chanted.

Suleymanoglu smiled, not in a shy way because he has grown used to fame, to being known as the greatest weightlifter in history, a national hero since winning his first Olympic title in Seoul eight years ago.

But even for the 28-year-old tiny lifter they call "Pocket Hercules" this was something special. A third gold medal. Delight showed in bright eyes that are set in boyish features and he raised stubby arms in triumph.

Earlier, at the Georgia World Congress Centre he could not bear to watch when his greatest rival, Valerios Leonidis, returned for one last effort on the lifting platform.

The Greek had a world record weight at his feet and a gold medal within his grasp. Back in the warm-up room, Suleymanoglu turned his back and stared at the wall of a cubicle. Hundreds of Turkish supporters who began cheering and singing 35 minutes before the start of competition in the 64kg (141lb) class started went silent.

Within the space of little more than five minutes, three world records had been broken. Suleymanoglu had gone ahead with a lift of 187.5kg (413lb) in the clean-and-jerk, almost three times his bodyweight, forcing Leonidis to go for 190kg (418lb) more than he had ever attempted in practice.

As Leonidis rubbed resined hands along the bar and drew a deep breath, lost in concentration, there was barely a murmur from the 5,000 present. Expelling air, Leonidis heaved the weight up and squatted. Unable to rise from there, he let it fall to the mat. Suleymanoglu had an unprecedented third gold medal and a great cheer went up from the Turkish contingent. "You have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history," the announcer, Lynn Jones, said.

Backstage, Suleymanoglu, the last to know he had won, fell into the arms of his coach and team officials.

Great sympathy was felt generally for Leonidis, but Suleymanoglu had again proved the extent of his mental toughness in a sport that carries historical fascination with human strength.

Suleymanoglu has come a long way. An ethnic Turk born to a desperately poor family in Kircali, Bulgaria, he defected in 1986 after coming up against government attempts to eliminate Turkish culture. After almost a year of diplomatic wrangling that followed his disappearance Turkey paid Bulgaria $1m (pounds 600,000) so that he could represent them in the 1988 Games.

A second gold in Barcelona four years ago meant that Suleymanoglu was established as the leading figure in Turkish sport long before his latest triumph. A member of the Turkish delegation, Togay Bayatli, said: "Naim is as big in Turkey as footballers are in other countries. For us he is like Michael Jordan is in the United States. No doors are closed to him. I don't think he would be asked to pay in restaurants. No policeman would give him a ticket for speeding. There is a great deal of affection for him."

On Monday, what came down to a contest between Suleymanoglu and Leonidis was heightened by the fragile relations that exist between Turkey and Greece. To the credit of both men, age-old animosity was submerged beneath an encouraging manifestation of the true Olympic spirit.

Because Leonidis held the tiebreak advantage of weighing in lighter, another supreme effort was required of Suleymanoglu when the Greek equalled the new record of 185kg in the clean and jerk. He came to the platform, a curiously shaped figure with powerful thighs and arms out of proportion to his body. Up went the weight, up again and then a shout of triumph as he let go. Turning towards where his supporters stood cheering, he threw a punch at the air and swaggered from the stage. "Magnificent," somebody said, "absolutely magnificent."

On the podium afterwards, Suleymanoglu was a picture of serenity, a third gold hanging around a slab of neck muscles, a bouquet clutched in his right hand.

The greatest weightlifter in history? "That's for others to decide," he said. "I am human. Everybody makes failure. Everyone tries to be a champion." Rewards for this latest triumph? Suleymanoglu smiled, anticipating perhaps further financial gifts from a grateful government.

Suleymanoglu had intended this to be his last Games, and it is doubtful whether he will compete in Sydney four years from now, but he will go on lifting. "It is my life," he said, "the only thing I have known."

For Leonidis, there was the realisation of destiny. "I felt I could beat him," he said. "I felt that I could make that lift but it wasn't written. When you compete against this man you have always to compete at world record levels."

When the words were translated for Suleymanoglu he nodded in appreciation. Applause followed him from the room.