Many experts consider Naim Suleymanoglu to be the greatest weightlifter of all time because he set an incredible 46 world records, won three straight Olympic gold medals and won eight world championships. He set a world record of 190 kilograms (419 pounds) in the clean and jerk in the 1988 Olympics, is the only weightlifter who has clean and jerked 10 kilos more than three times his body weight, was the first man to snatch 2½ times his own body weight and had the highest total weight lift per body weight ever in any competition.
He was hospitalized at ages 42, 47 and 50 for liver failure and received a liver transplant on October 6th, 2017. On November 11, he had surgery for a brain hemorrhage, was placed in a coma and died on November 18th, 2017. He was a national hero in Turkey and in attendance for his funeral were the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Justice Minister, Social Security Minister and Youth and Sports Minister, the Mayor of Istanbul, the Weightlifting Federation President and hundreds of other politicians, athletes and fans. Also attending were his closest Olympic competitor, Valerios Leonidis, and another Bulgarian weight lifter who followed him to Turkey and also won Olympic gold, Halil Mutlu. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, read a eulogy in Rize, Suleymanoglu’s hometown.
Groomed to be a Hero
Suleymanoglu was born to Turkish parents in Bulgaria. His coal-miner father was only five feet tall and his mother was 4’7″. At age 10, he joined the Bulgarian national weight-lifting team that regularly beat Russia, a country that had 40 times as many registered lifters. He soon became a star who won many international championships in his teens. At age 15 he won the World Junior Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil by breaking the world record for his weight division, and at age 17 he became the second man to lift three times his body weight over his head at the 1984 European Championships He probably would have won an Olympic championship at age 17 had Bulgaria not joined Russia in the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
In 1985, when he was 18 years old, the Bulgarian government legislated “The Revival Process” which required all ethnic minorities to change their ethnic names to those that sounded Bulgarian and speak only the Bulgarian language. His entire family was forced to change their name from the Turkish Suleymanoglu to the Bulgarian Shalamanov. The next year he traveled with the Bulgarian weight lifting team to compete in the World Cup Final in Melbourne, Australia. He ran away from the hotel where the Bulgarian team was staying and was not seen until four days later when he showed up at the Turkish Embassy in Canberra. The Prime Minister of Turkey sent his private jet to the World Cup competition and flew Naim Suleymanoglu secretly first to London and then to Ankara where Suleymanoglu stepped off the plane to be greeted by the cheers of thousands of adoring Turks.
He soon changed his name back to Suleymanoglu. The communist Bulgarian government was livid and had Suleymanoglu suspended from all international competition for more than a year. Finally, Turkey paid $1,250,000 to the Bulgarian government to allow Suleymanoglu to lift for the Turkish national weightlifting team. He served as an inspiration for Halil Mutlu, also a Turkish weightlifter for the Bulgarian team, to leave Bulgaria for Turkey three years later. Matlu also won three Olympic gold medals.
His Olympic Career
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Suleymanoglu lifted 342.5 kilos to win a gold medal and set six world and nine Olympic records. He was now probably the most famous man in Turkey, but he worried that his parents and two brothers were still in Bulgaria. After he won his gold medal at the Seoul Olympics, the Bulgarian government allowed Suleymanoglu’s parents, two brothers and their wives and one child to join him in Ankara, where all eight of them lived in a three-bedroom apartment.
At age 22, he won his division in the world championships and retired from competition, but not for long. Three years later at age 24, he won his second Olympic gold medal at Barcelona in 1992. He won his third Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta when he defeated Greece’s Valerios Leonidis, in what is described by many as the fiercest weightlifting competition ever. These two were so much better than everyone else in the competition that the arena was filled with Turks and Greeks rooting for their countrymen. Near the end of competition they traded three straight world record lifts. Then Suleymanoglu won by lifting 187.5 kg. After Leonidis was unable to lift his chosen what-would-have-been-a-world-record 190 kgs., he cried visibly on the stage and Suleymanoglu tried to comfort him with a big hug.
At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, he started out by trying to lift a world record 145 kg and failed in three attempts, which put him out of the competition. He was not successful as a politician, losing major elections in 1999, 2002 and 2006. However, he was elected to the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame.
What Led to His Young Death?
• He was placed in the Bulgarian training program that took 10-year old children and worked them under the Bulgarian weight lifting coach, Ivan Abadjiev, up to the point where those that survived were training eight hours a day. Of course, many of the kids dropped out because of dislocated joints, torn ligaments, broken bones, torn tendons, and extreme overtraining. Suleymanoglu survived that abuse.
• Strength training programs are based on stress and recover workouts, where the athlete lifts weights to the point where his muscles are damaged. To make a muscle stronger, you have to damage the Z-lines in muscles fibers so that when they heal, the muscles become larger and stronger. For most normal people, the muscles are so sore that they have to lift lighter weights for several days to allow them to heal after these brutal workouts, yet members of the Bulgarian program were recovering so fast that they were taking hard workouts in the afternoon on the same day after their previous hard morning workout.
• Aniko Nemeth-Mora, a Hungarian who is co-editor of the Budapest-based World Weightlifting magazine wrote, “The mystery is how can the athletes recover? The Bulgarians lift morning to night. It is more than seems possible. The Bulgarians, who claim to have sworn off steroids since two of their best lifters tested positive at the 1976 Olympics, say that intensive massage, whirlpool therapy and periodic fasting enable them to handle the staggering training load.”
• In 1984, Soviets weight lifters, superheavyweight Alexander Kurlovich and a teammate were caught with steroids in Montreal’s Mirabel Airport on their way to a meet. Both lifters were suspended from international competition for two years.
• Suleymanoglu was extremely short at only 4’10” tall with short arms and legs. He did have short parents, but they grew up in poverty, but he had an excellent diet which should have allowed him to grow taller. Giving steroids to children can cause the growth centers of bones to close early, which results in very short arms and legs.
Early Liver Failure
Of course he smoked cigarettes and drank lots of alcohol, which could have damaged his liver to have eventually killed him. Suleymanoglu was never caught taking drugs at any time during his athletic career and he never failed a drug test, but I think it is unusual to take so many brutal, muscle-damaging workouts, sometimes twice a day, day after day, unless something is helping you to recover faster than almost all other humans do. Anabolic steroids and human growth hormones help athletes to recover faster, so they can train harder and longer, but they come at a terrible price:
• Steroids can damage the liver and even cause liver tumors
• Steroids increase heart attack risk years later by raising the bad LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure and lowering the good HDL cholesterol
• Steroid use can increase risk for hepatitis B and C that can destroy the liver because needles are often shared when the athletes take steroids by injection
• Human growth hormones cause the heart muscle to enlarge without also proportionally enlarging the nerves that cause the heart to beat. That means that people who take high doses of growth hormones can suffer irregular heartbeats and sudden death as long as 30 years after they stop taking them.
• Steroids and human growth hormones have many other side effects.
January 23, 1967 – November 18, 2017