Atanas Yonkov is a web developer, blogger and an amid dreamer. In his spare time he enjoys hiking and playing the guitar.
Naim Süleymanoğlu, the legendary weightlifter, died 18 November 2017 at the age of 50. He was born in Ptichar (Momchilgrad Municipality) a small mountain village in Bulgaria in a family of Turkish descent. He is considered to be the greatest weightlifter of all times. He set 32 world records prior to the 1988 Olympics, when he was just 22 years old. He won 3 Olympic gold medals from the games in Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996. He became the first person to lift three times his body weight + 10 kg more.
The young Naim started weightlifting from a very early age. At the age of 15, he started winning medals and breaking records. At the age of sixteen, he won a silver medal for Bulgaria at the World Championship in Moscow. In the next two years, he won another 2 gold medals for Bulgaria. The last one – in November 1986, just a month before his surprising escape to Turkey.
Escape to Turkey
Süleymanoğlu was competing as a member of the Bulgarian weightlifting federation. He was trained by Ivan Abadzhiev, the famous Bulgarian Olympic Weightlifting coach. The legendary trainer produced 12 Olympic champions, 57 world champions and 64 European champions. Abadzhiev was proclaimed "The Pope of the barbels" for his breathtaking career as a coach. Throughout his whole life. Naim remained grateful to Abadzhiev and the Bulgarian federation. Yet, in 1986 he fled the federation and started to compete for Turkey. Back in the 80s, there was a political doctrine in Bulgaria, called the “Revival Process”. According to it, all the Bulgarian Turks (people with Turkish descent, who live in Bulgaria) should receive Bulgarian names. Naim was forced to change his name to Naum Shalamanov. This act deeply saddened him and he plotted to escape his home country and to leave the Bulgarian Weightlifting Federation. However, during the cold war times, it was almost impossible to do so and he kept his plans in secret: “DC agents followed our team during the championships. I needed to be one step before them. The World championship in Australia was my last chance to escape. I did not share my plans with anyone, not even my parents.”
Just one week prior to his escape, Süleymanoğlu had a private meeting with the Bulgarian communist leader, general secretary Todor Zhivkov. Zhivkov welcomed him in his residence: “We talked for about 25 minutes. Zhivkov asked me whether I need something. Ivan Abadzhev instructed me not to ask anything of him and I listened to his advice. After the meeting, for the first time, I felt confident that I can escape. No one doubted me now.” During his stay abroad, Naim met with quite a lot of fans, including some Turkish emigrants. They advised him to escape from Bulgaria and contacted a guy from the Turkish nationalist organization "Grey Wolves": “They have arranged everything. We were to meet at the hotel at the night after the tournament. However, at that evening, we had a cocktail with all the teams in a restaurant outside the city. There was one guy from DC as well, however he was sitting on the trainer's table. I was with the other players at another table. At some point, I looked at the door and I saw the guy that I had spoken with. Somehow, they knew where the event was. We went outside with the other team members to smoke a cigarette. The DC guy remained on the trainer’s table. The guy made me a sign not to speak with him. After a minute, he approached us and told me everything was arranged.I was to leave the hotel in the night. I told him I want to escape now.”
Naim Süleymanoğlu’s escape received strong media coverage. The story of the running weightlifter was everywhere on the news. After hiding for a few days in Australia, he tried to contact the Turkish embassy. However, they did not accept him for security reasons. Тhe story reached the Turkish president Turgut Ozal. He stated that Naim is very welcome to come to Turkey, if this was what he wanted. He instructed the Turkish authorities to arrange Naim’s flight to Turkey: “If Turgut Ozal had not have helped me, I would have been just another poor immigrant on the streets of Melbourne.” In order to arrange the diplomatic confilct with Bulgaria, Turkey payed $1,250,000 to Bulgaria so Naim can continue to play under the Turkish flag.
In his first interview after the escape he proclaimed: “They forced me to change my name. That is why I escaped.” Until the end of his life, Naim remained grateful to Ivan Abadzhiev and Bulgaria for making him the athlete he was. He also confided that as a sportsman, he had many privileges that the ordinary people did not have: “My father waited sixteen years to get a car. I changed two cars just for a year.” He was the first sportsman ever to receive a private audience by the Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov. However, Naim criticized the communist regime as “not really efficient for the people”. In one of his last interviews to Bulgarian media he said: “I did not do it for the money. I would have continued to play for Bulgaria if they haven't forced me to change my name”.
The legendary weightlifter spent his final years in Ankara and managed a private business. He ran for the elections a few times, however, he was not successful. He was a hero for the Turkish people. A lot of Bulgarians also admired him, even though he won most of his medals for Turkey.
Naim often visited Momchilgrad, where he lived as a teenager and his home place, a beautiful village in the Rhodopy mountain called Ptichar. Last time he came back to his home country was to say farewell to the person he admired the most - his trainer Ivan Abadziev. The legendary weightlifting coach passed in March 2017: “I owe everything to him” – he stated.
Naim could not escape the price of fame. In his final years, he lived a bohemian lifestyle and his health deteriorated significantly. He passed away 18 November 2017, at the age of 50. He suffered from a liver failure. We will remember his as the great athlete he was.