1
THE GREAT ESCAPE
"HIS ARRIVAL WAS THE EXPRESSION OF AN UPRISING."
Attila Gökçe
Sports columnist, one of the journalists that tracked Naim Süleymanoğlu’s career nearest.
Naim was born and raised in Kardzhali, Bulgaria: where Turks live by a majority. He was discovered at around the age of 12, while playing on a playground. His most remarkable feature was his short stature, as you might know; if you are a short weightlifter, the distance the arms lift the weight decreases.

He became The World Champion for Bulgaria when his name was Naum Shalamanov but he was unhappy due to President Todor Jivkov’s enforcements of cultural assimilation policies: forced migrations, obligation of speaking only Bulgarian, etc. He couldn’t stand those enforcements so he was brought to Turkey from Australia where he was located for 1986 World Championship, by a special operation which led by then-current Prime Minister of Turkey Turgut Özal and carried out by Ministry of Foreign Affairs along with Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT). His arrival was the expression of an uprising. This uprising drew the world’s attention as well as Naim’s.
Kenan Nuhut
The then Secretery–general of Turkish Weightlifting Federation
Even though Naim was an athlete that is obviously created for weightlifting, he had begun wrestling in Bulgaria at first. Later on, after watching him for a long time in his neighborhood, Enver Türkileri decides that he is much more suitable for weightlifting than wrestling. And the path that led him to be “The World’s Greatest Weightlifter” has formed like so.
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
I have watched him during The European Weightlifting Championship in Poland in 1985. We were hearing rumors that he would like to escape to Turkey but Bulgarian officials were aware of it and preventing him to do so. Once, they wouldn’t bring him to one of the championships for that exact reason; they were afraid of him running away. He was always kept alongside the security guards.

Story of the escape is a whole other thing. The escape was planned one year in advance and encrypted correspondences have been exchanged during the period. After Naim wins the title of World Champion in Melbourne, he leaves the Bulgarian Squad by taking advantage of a moment of sheer recklessness and goes to a restaurant, where he later gets rescued from the restroom in the back. They take him to a coffee house in a yellow Datsun car. Afterwards, Naim makes for a mosque with another group of people where Turkish Squad are praying. He also prays and leaves the mosque later to be placed in a house and inform the Turkish Embassy. When Embassy officials report the situation to Turgut Özal, The Prime Minister orders him to be brought at once. Naim lands in London first, where he was transferred into a private jet to fly into Istanbul and Ankara eventually.

I found everyone and everything without any exception, even that very Datsun car, which helped Naim escape to Turkey at the 1993 Melbourne Championship, and reorganized the escape, as if I were breaking him out once again. It is something that can be recorded, but as a journalist, I chose to take pictures of it step by step. I still cannot understand the fact that his life hasn’t been made into a movie. There aren’t many stories as beautiful as this. For instance, Muhammed Ali’s story is a great story; an uprising, a rebellion… But, what about Naim’s story? He was the greatest weightlifter, even when he was back in Bulgaria, so why would he come here instead of living off the fat of the land back there?
Attila Gökçe
Sports columnist, one of the journalists that tracked Naim Süleymanoğlu’s career nearest.
Although not as strong as wrestling, weightlifting infrastructure had also existed in Turkey back then. It was always possible to find youngsters to do weightlifting. Do you know what Naim did differently? He worked up the flames existing in weightlifting to eventually turn them into a big fire. A fire kept burning inside the boys and girls. Thus we began producing our own athletes. All of these are the result of the flames he once fanned.

A black comedy takes place during Naim’s earlier days in Turkey: The then-Minister of Youth and Sports Metin Emiroğlu, summons his general director and instructs him to find out whether Naim has a girlfriend or not. Descending from the uppermost level of bureaucracy and evolving on every step, this inquiry makes it to the president of the weightlifting federation and to Naim’s trainers even. It turns out that he does not have one. And of course the reply travels the same labyrinth on its way back and somehow reaches the president as “Naim does not have a ‘lady friend’, do you want us to take this problem on hand, or will you prefer to deal with it yourselves, what are your orders?” Metin Emiroğlu replies it as: “What do you think I am? A pimp? I just asked. That’s it.”
2
THE MONEY IN THE SUITCASE
"I KNEW WHEN AND WHERE THE MONEY WAS SUPPOSED TO GET THROUGH,
BUT WE COULDN’T TRACK IT, THEY KEPT US FROM DOING SO"
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
The European Weightlifting Championship in Cardiff was the first competition that Naim participated representing Turkey. He didn’t speak Turkish yet. In general, weightlifting was not even watched by the journalists, who track Olympics. But there was a pack of 30 journalists following Naim from Turkey alone and their foreign colleagues were no less than them. Bulgarian athletes were running against Naim, who was their teammate just only three months ago. Neno Terziyski, who used to come after Naim in Bulgarian Squad at 56 kgs in general, was up against him. Cardiff was not a city of great interest in weightlifting. Naim was going to get on the platform on the first day of the championship. The hall was totally empty on the second and third days, but in the first day, when Naim was on, it was jam packed.

The regulation at the time was that if a national athlete was going to compete for another country, he needed permission from his previous country or had to wait for a year. Turkish Government had come to an agreement with Bulgarian Government for a payment from discretionary fund of 1 million 200 thousand dollars for this permission. This amount was crossed to Bulgaria through Edirne (Turkish-Bulgarian Border) in suitcases by the Director of Youth and Sports Kemal Kamiloğlu, President of Weightlifting Federation Arif Nusret Say and his clerk altogether. It was probably one of the most breaking news that I have missed; I knew when and where the money was supposed to get through, but we couldn’t track it, they kept us from doing so. After the transfer of the agreed amount, there were no obstacles left for Naim to compete in Olympic Games. A Turkish language teacher was assigned to him on his way back.
Attila Gökçe
Sports columnist, one of the journalists that tracked Naim Süleymanoğlu’s career nearest.
What Naim could achieve in Seul was questionable. For some reason, there was a rumor going around: “Naim’s trainer is Ivan Abaciev. He is the only trainer that can carry out the exclusive practice methods and training schedule for him. Turkish trainers are not able to do so, thus Naim stands far from the medal.”
3
THE DOCTOR’S REPORT THAT HISTORY EXCLUDED
"DOCTORS SAID THAT HE CAN’T GO TO SEUL IN THIS CONDITION."
Kenan Nuhut
The then Secretery–general of Turkish Weightlifting Federation
Naim worked out almost perfectly but something terrible happened just before Seul. What I am about to say could be a first in history; Naim had a serious illness back then. We brought him to GATA (Military Medical Academy) and took him into intensive care. Doctors said that it would be seriously dangerous for him to go under those circumstances so he shouldn’t. Naim heavily opposed to that. Even though Mr. Arif insisted and said “You are more important to us than Olympic Games”, he refused to listen to anyone. Doctors filed the report despite his oppositions, but Naim distrained it up and kept working out. So he attended The 1988 Olympic Games in Seul, even though he was seriously ill.
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
He was one of the brightest athletes I’ve ever seen. He took one of the rooms in his apartment in Gaziosmanpaşa and turned it into a training center. We used to go to every one of his trainings and he was breaking world records in all of them! When the trainings ended we would report news like: “Naim broke another unofficial world record.” Those reports were becoming headlines in front pages.

Turkey had made a great deal of investment; Naim is practicing unbelievably; and the games are approaching… Just 3 months before Seul, it turned out that he has hepatitis… Prime Minister Özal invited an Iranian Professor to Turkey, who had great level of expertise in this matter. An intensive treatment was applied for some time and he got better after two months, but he didn’t practice for that entire two months. A month before the games, he designed an insane workout routine for himself, which we couldn’t believe possible to carry out so we went there to see for ourselves. Weightlifters usually lift 30-40 tons of weight in a training. Naim had three separate sections in his routine: morning, afternoon and midnight! He was going into the gym and practicing almost two hours each night. We all had doubts. It was three or four days before Seul and I was watching his training with Cemal Ersen, when he broke another world record by 20 kilos. After that, Arif Nusret turned and said: “Guys, you are going to witness a competition that will be written in the history of sports. It is going to be a spectacular event.”
4
EMPTY STREETS
"EACH TIME HE STEPPED ON THE PLATFORM WAS A NEW RECORD."
Attila Gökçe
Sports columnist, one of the journalists that tracked Naim Süleymanoğlu’s career nearest.
His biggest opponent in Seul was Bulgarian Stefan Topurov. Naim was continuing his career at 60 kilos which he started at 56. They both broke world records in their first run. Afterwards Naim outran him by 15 kilos in both snatch, and clean and jerk; 342,5 to 312,5 in total. He broke world records repeatedly in that session. As a person who had a heart attack ten months earlier, it was strictly forbidden for me to run those days, and I had a cheap camera in my hands. So when Naim lifted 190 kilos in snatch, I somehow found myself next to him, away from the press area. If I tried that run today, I would die for sure.
Ercan Taner
Journalist, sports columnist, commentator.
When we were in Seul for 1988 Olympic Games, everyone was talking about Men’s 100m Athletics Finals; “Is it going to be Ben Johnson or Carl Lewis?” But for us Turks, Naim was the main discussion. When Naim got on the stage and calmly began breaking the records one by one, he suddenly became the most spoken athlete, the golden boy of the entire games. So much so that our foreign colleagues’ looks toward us in press rooms had diversified in a way. It was as if we were the Olympic champions already; everybody was congratulating, asking us how they can get in touch with Naim. It was one of happiest moments of my life as a journalist. After the competition, our colleague Ertan Yüce reached towards Naim and said; “Let me give you a hug on behalf of all of Turkish nation!” while were banded together, watching on TV back in Turkey. He was the main topic after the games in both the worlds’ and Turkish sports media and eventually made it to the cover of Time magazine.
“ So much so that our foreign colleagues’ looks toward us in press rooms had diversified in a way. It was as if we were the Olympic champions already; everybody was congratulating, asking us how they can get in touch with Naim.”
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
1988 Seul is memorable for two events these days; doping of men’s 100m winner Canadian athlete Ben Johnson and Naim, lifting a weight that is equal to three times of his. If I am not mistaken, he broke six World and nine European records there. Each time he stepped on the platform was a new record. I had a long interview with him when we were back from Seul. “It is my uprising” he said. Indeed, he mentioned that in every one of his interviews afterwards. He was called “The Pocket Hercules” and “The Small Giant” by the world media. The borders were open later on. For example, Halil Mutlu came after that period, wrestlers came… Naim’s uprising started a huge return to Turkey. He had a huge impact upon refinement of Bulgarian-Turkish relations and helped Turkish people in Bulgaria to be treated equally.
Attila Gökçe
Sports columnist, one of the journalists that tracked Naim Süleymanoğlu’s career nearest.
He was one of the athletes that stayed the shortest in Seul. He arrived there two days before the first competition in September 20th. He was not supposed to fell asleep during the flight in order not to get “Jet Lagged”, so he kept drinking coffee constantly. In the drug control following the competitions, caffeine levels in his blood was only 5 to 10 milligrams below the limit. Coffee could have cost him the medals.
Kenan Nuhut
The then Secretery–general of Turkish Weightlifting Federation
The streets were like deserted in Turkey during the time of the competition. Everyone was waiting in front of their TVs. After the competition, a commission, which I was also involved in, was established and a magnificent welcoming was organized for him. When we picked him up at Esenboğa Airport, a splendid cortege and thousands of cheering people accompanied us. A crowd this size was never seen before. Police reports can verify it.
5
STAYING ON TOP
"I WAS IN A CLOSE-COMPETITION WITH A LEGEND."
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
The days after Seul were quieter for Naim. Naturally, he was improving his own records bit by bit in every championship. After seeing him, the international federation has adjusted the weights so that weightlifting draws more attention. Even today, he still has some records that cannot be broken. He became the face of weightlifting in the world. When he kept on winning, the interest towards weightlifting was raised significantly in Turkey and thanks to him the number of people who want to do the sports increased by a great margin. There was a weightlifter boom and it produced some good weightlifters. Those good trainers that came to train him had a serious effect on other Turkish athletes as well. Although Turkey is going downhill today and yearns for the days of Naim, it was once the leading country in weightlifting.

We, as country, failed Naim Süleymanoğlu in weightlifting class. He was studying P.E (physical education) in Ankara Gazi University Educational Sciences Institute. While he was representing Turkey in 1991 Mediterranean Games in Athens, someone called me and reported this incident. I didn’t believe it at first but I took a cab and quickly went to the university just to make sure. It was true; the results were announced and Naim had failed. I can apologize for this today, but in fear of losing grounds, I tore that piece of paper, tucked it in my pocket and rushed back to the newspaper. I even won an award with that story. We interviewed his teacher Mehmet Ziya Ayaslan as well; he mentioned about Naim’s style being incorrect and his constant absence but whatever the case was then, we managed to fail the world's greatest weightlifter from weightlifting class. We achieved this, in Turkey. We simply said “he doesn’t know weightlifting, not enough.” Even this single-handedly is a movie plot.
“We managed to fail the world's greatest weightlifter from weightlifting class. We achieved this, in Turkey. We simply said “he doesn’t know weightlifting, not enough.””
Ercan Taner
Journalist, sports columnist, commentator.
Our commentator friend from TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Cooperation) Güven Göktaş was on his military duty in 1994. For this reason, we got together one day and visited his unit, which was located in Etimesgut, Ankara. So we’re there, sitting and talking, I looked to the side and there he was: Naim! I was shocked. I asked him: “what are you doing here?” His reply was: “I am doing my military duty as well.” Later on, we sat down and had a chat for couple of hours. He was in a tank crew. Naim did his military duty for eight months, but he had never mentioned anything before joining the army. He had never showed it off. That was why seeing him there was a huge surprise for us.
Güven Göktaş
Journalist, served in the army together with Naim Süleymanoğlu.
I was astonished to see many of my colleagues from sports media present when I was capitulating myself in to the armed forces unit in Ankara. I never thought this many people would have turned up to see me off. Then I turned around for a second and saw him; Naim. We had met before in Barcelona. Naim and I, even Metin Diyadin, we all entered the division at the same time and were taken into the same barracks. Soon afterwards, they were transferred to the school of sports. A couple of days later, a 4x4 stopped by while I was doing army crawling exercises and a commander stepped out to ask about me. “They say you are an athlete as well, they are calling for you.”

So in this school of sports; Naim and Metin were doing their trainings and I was trying to catch up with them. I was petting Naim’s puppy that had been brought to the army. We would run together with it… Time was running smoothly. But that only lasted for three days. Naim and Metin have told their superiors that I was a national youth football player despite the fact that I was 30 years old back then. When they saw the picture, I made my way back to crawling and they went their own way. The most important vision in my mind from the time we have shared; is of the duty officers, who were very curious about us. They used to call us to their rooms just to chat and I was obliged to talk to them up until midnights, since Naim and Metin were not very fond of talking.
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
A very interesting thing happened when Turkey stepped up greatly in this sport: Greece transferred Naim’s trainer Abaciev and gathered a good deal of momentum under his management by raising a new generation. A huge rivalry began between Greece and Turkey due to that generation. In the second competition before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Greeks put Leonidis up against Naim. Leonidis’ grandparents have once lived in Trabzon and thus he was able communicate in Turkish. Also, he and Naim had a great friendship. A grand rivalry and a great friendship… This rivalry was formed during the two world championships they competed in. They were lifting weights one after another, forging ahead by bits but in the end, Naim was being victorious. The contest between these two in Atlanta 1996 was also a spectacular one. There isn’t any contest like it in history.

It was held in a hall with a capacity of three thousand people. Greek supporters were on the left and Turkish supporters were on the right side of the stands while the center was filled up mostly by journalists. Just for this very event, the 200 capacity press box was increased to 600. It was a splendid contest. I have seen many people crying, hugging each other in the stands. Naim took every one of his six attempts. Before Naim’s last attempt, Leonidis was ahead once again and was about to become the Olympic Champion by taking a legend down. After his fifth attempt, Naim made an unforgettable gesture: he turned around and flipped his hand, showing that he will be coming back… The very next day, CNN reported the event as “He came back and became the champion!”
“Naim took every one of his six attempts. Before Naim’s last attempt, Leonidis was ahead once again and was about to become the Olympic Champion by taking a legend down.”
Kenan Nuhut
The then Secretery–general of Turkish Weightlifting Federation
The rivalry between Naim and Leonidis dates back to 1994. Weightlifting began in Turkey in 1960’s but we weren’t even getting invited to the international competitions those days. Then Naim came into play and turned things around completely; we even held the 1994 World Weightlifting Championship in Istanbul. Naim and Leonidis had a great race in Istanbul and Naim came out victorious once again. However, this rivalry became eternal in Atlanta. Leonidis was a great athlete, I am sorry to say this, but he was never as good as Naim. Naim always outperformed him even with a 2,5 kg difference and kept his title.
Valerios Leonidis
Greek athlete, Naim Süleymanoğlu’s greatest rival. One of the greatest weightlifters of all time.
Participating in the Olympic Games is the dream of all athletes. To achieve it, you start a long and devoted journey that helps confronting great deal of pain and loss. Each Olympic Game was a different experience, but 1996 Atlanta was undoubtedly the most special and unforgettable one for me. The race between me and Naim is considered to be “the greatest weightlifting battle” of all times. It was my best performance; I was competing head to head with a legend. When I had first begun weightlifting, Naim was already the World Champion. I’ve seen his performance in Seul, which I think is the best in the history of weightlifting on TV. Not only lifting that much weight but also becoming his friend, was truly a dream to me back then. The best man won in Atlanta.
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
Halil Mutlu and Naim Süleymanoğlu both won gold medals in 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I took them to Stone Mountain Park to take some photos, where the former U.S Presidents’ reliefs are carved on the rocks, but the security officer told us that the park was closed that day. America, rules, police… You usually don’t get to ask a second time. When our driver was reversing I said “Wait for a minute.” I was on the front seat and Naim and Halil were sitting in the back. Halil rolled down his window and tried his chance by saying: “I am the Olympic champion and we were just going to take a photo here” but the answer didn’t change much:” Sorry but we are closed today, you can’t come in even if you were the president of the United States.” At that point, Naim rolled down the window on his side for a bit and took a peek at the officer, turned his head and told us in Turkish:” I wish we could have entered.” The guy suddenly looked at him, then at me and said: “Pocket Hercules?” “Yes!” we answered excitedly. He went into the office, made a short phone call and a vehicle full of 7-8 security officers came to pick us up. They all had photos taken with Naim that day, one-by-one. For that matter I can’t forget Halil standing there with his medal on his neck saying, “I am also the Olympic Champion. How is it the guy that won’t even allow the U.S President to enter is taking photos with Naim?” In the end, they took their pictures and we took ours…
6
WHEN THE WORLD COLLAPSED ON HIM
"WE USED HIM UP AS SOON AS HE FELL FROM GRACE…"
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
Right after earning three Olympic titles, Naim started having troubles with his social life. Being away from his family has made him miserable. After winning Milliyet’s Athlete of the Year Award he announced his retirement. As a matter of fact, he could have continued. He had quite a bit of ups and downs in his life. He kept training, lifting decent weights, and observing the Chinese athletes, who were brought to replace him. Meanwhile, a fair amount of pressure was exerted on him because of the approaching 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Organization of Sports was pushing him to attend the games, which, in my opinion, was a huge mistake. Only one week before the Games he got sick again. What was interesting is that he was still lifting at least 5kgs more than his opponents on the day before the competition. His opponents were intimidated since all athletes were training in the same room. They were all saying: “It is certain that Naim is going to be 1st so we are aiming for the 2nd place.”
Attila Gökçe
Sports columnist, one of the journalists that tracked Naim Süleymanoğlu’s career nearest.
Naim “bombed out” in that competition. Even though they knew his waist problems, they caused this result by feeding his ego; just to create another success story… It is not a shame for him, but for Turkish sports mentality. The same happened to Hamza Yerlikaya; we destroyed our values for medals by being selfish. This is a common chronical disease which has to be treated amongst our politicians, ministries or directorates. What was done is a shame and pity…
Kenan Nuhut
The then Secretery–general of Turkish Weightlifting Federation
Weightlifters are usually pretty cool during trainings, but get really excited when it comes to competitions. However, it was quite the opposite for Naim. He used to get excited till he stepped on the platform, but held his nerves at the helm of the bar. That level of composure was his path to success along with his concentration. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in Sydney.
Attila Gökçe
Sports columnist, one of the journalists that tracked Naim Süleymanoğlu’s career nearest.
Naim is still considered and respected as a miracle man in the world. But when he retired from weightlifting after a huge disappointment, he went through severe traumatic events at the same size. His health got worse, he was at a loss. He tried politics; failed. There were rumors of him having a drinking problem. In fact, he used to drink and smoke when he was an athlete. You would think all the things that are said to be harmful for health and athletic performance do not reflect the truth when you look into his life style. Moreover, he doted upon sex. He even had a related incident back in Atlanta. He might even give you a red face with some of his stories.
“You would think all the things that are said to be harmful for health and athletic performance do not reflect the truth when you look into his life style.”
Tayfun Bayındır
Sports columnist or as stated by him; ‘Naim Süleymanoğlu reporter’ between 1987-2000.
After the failure in Sydney, he was brought into the board of Turkish Weightlifting Federation. Following his contributions in a single term, he wanted to run for president. Like most of the other jobs in Turkey, that position was also to be obtained through favoritism instead of qualifications, so he didn’t get it. He was disappointed. I think it was a pity. Naim is still an asset for not only Turkish, but the world’s weightlifting community. No individual has his lifting method except Halil Mutlu, who he trained personally. Methods are very important aspects in weightlifting. Pace… He used to “Drew like a sword” as the saying goes, which is when you lift the weights in snatch with a single move. We should secure him transferring his methods to others. Just bring him into a gym and let him talk to the athletes… Even that would be adequate. Abaciev didn’t contribute much when he was brought to Turkey, except improving fundamentals of athletes by a bit. How could he contribute to athletes like Naim and Halil, when they are at the top level? We waste our assets in haste. You might say that we used this particular asset a little, but we wasted it as soon as he’s gone to seed. Unfortunately, he is living in unpleasant conditions these days. I don’t believe that sports community has paid off its debts of his contributions to us. Money is not everything. Naim had compensations that not everyone could have had by weightlifting. İşbank has given him as much gold as he could lift back then. Houses, gifts… These things are nice, but temporary. We could have shown him a bit more loyalty. Naim has also made some mistakes, but you can’t avoid that, when you fall from grace that fast.
Valerios Leonidis
Greek athlete, Naim Süleymanoğlu’s greatest rival. One of the greatest weightlifters of all time.
We had a great mutual respect for each other as soon as we met. We used to enjoy spending time together after the competitions. My grandparents have taught me Turkish, so we were speaking in Turkish sometimes and Russian every so often. We became close friends. He was never provocative against my country, even though he was a star athlete. He is very brilliant and respectful. Everyone knows that the competitions are held on the platforms and whatever happens stays there. He was liked by everybody and his characteristics make him one of the greatest athletes and human beings ever.