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RIP, ‘Pocket Hercules’

November 22nd, 2017 · 1 Comment · Olympics

The first paragraphs went like this:

“He stands five feet tall.

“He weighs 132 pounds.

“He can lift 418 pounds over his head.

“His name is Naim Suleymanoglu, from Turkey, and pound for pound he is the strongest man in the history of the world.”

That was the opening of my story on the featherweight lifting competition at the Seoul Olympics, one of the more memorable events I covered as a journalist at 14 Olympics.

The man did plenty of heavy lifting to make himself a star, but it was the nickname someone hung on him that took him to another level.

“Pocket Hercules”.

Everyone knew who that was. The Danny DeVito-sized guy from Turkey who lifted preposterous amounts of weight.

He also had an interesting back story, of his growing up in Bulgaria as a member of the persecuted Turkish minority. His father was a zinc miner. His mother stood 4-foot-7, his father 5-foot-0. Pocket Hercules may have been as short as 4-foot-10.

He was born Naim Suleimanov, in 1967, but the Bulgarian government wanted names ethnic Turks to carry names that sounded more Bulgarian, so he was known in that country as Naum Shalamonov. And, after he defected, he took the Turkish name Naim Suleymanoglu.

Turkey paid $1 million to Bulgaria so that it would allow him to compete for his new country, and for four Olympic cycles he was the best-known weight lifter in the world.

He won gold medals at Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and I was in the auditorium for the 1988 final.

He set world records repeatedly, and was the first lifter to lift more than three times his body weight, in 1988. At Seoul he lifted 418 pounds in the clean and jerk, a world record.

Suleymanoglu made weight lifting cool, there for a moment.

He had a few distinctive tics, when lifting.

The first was his habit of puffing air out of the corner of his mouth and up past his ete, while he gripped the bar, to move his hair away from his face.

The second was the “silent scream” shape he gave his mouth while lifting — a slightly elongated “O”.

Weight lifting is a very old sport, of course. People have wanted an answer to “who is the strongest?” probably forever. For a long time, in the Western world, it was thought to be the mythic Hercules — said to be half a god, because Zeus was his father but his mother was mortal.

In the Olympics, the strongest, for his size, was Pocket Hercules.

To watch him perform was something a viewer was not likely to forget.

Weight lifting is contested in auditoriums — big darkened rooms with a bright stage, which makes it an almost intimate setting. Unlike the distance engendered at a track and field stadium, or even other indoor sports like basketball and gymnastics.

In lifting, the men and women march out from backstage to address the bar … and strive to get it over their heads, and the tension is palpable.

Pocket Hercules was the best at it for three Olympiads, before age and some unhealthy lifestyle habits — he smoked 55 cigarettes a day — ended his run at Sydney 2000.

He died on Istanbul on Saturday after suffering from several months of decline, which included liver failure and a liver transplant, and a brain hemorrhage.

He remains a enormous celebrity in Turkey and his name and accomplishments remain known by generic fans of the Olympics.

I saw lots and lots of Olympics competitions, starting with a U.S.-Canada ice hockey game at Sarajevo in 1984 and ending with and UAE soccer match in Wembley Stadium in 2012. Most of them have receded into the depths of my memory.

One that sticks with me, still, is the arrival, on the world stage, on Pocket Hercules, at Seoul 1988.




1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Nov 23, 2017 at 3:01 PM

    Love the construction of the opening, but perhaps you should have written he is pound for pound the strongest man in the history of the Olympics?

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