ISTANBUL – Turkey’s legendary triple Olympic gold medal-winning weightlifting champion Naim Suleymanoglu, dubbed the “Pocket Hercules” for generating huge power from his diminutive frame, died on Saturday at age 50, state media reported.
The Bulgarian-born Suleymanoglu, who had in late September been admitted to intensive care after suffering liver failure, died in a hospital in Istanbul, the Anadolu news agency said.
He was receiving treatment for cirrhosis of the liver, according to Anadolu. He had received a liver transplant.
Suleymanoglu scored a historic hat trick of consecutive Olympic titles starting in Seoul in 1988, then Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996.
His exploits made him a national hero in Turkey, where he is regarded as one of the greatest sports personalities in the country’s history.
But the path to stardom for Suleymanoglu, who was born Naim Suleimanov as a member of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, was not smooth.
He initially competed for Bulgaria but defected from the then Communist-bloc eastern European state in December 1986 during the Weightlifting World Cup in Melbourne.
In an episode that caused a sensation at the time, Suleymanoglu left for London aboard the Turkish prime minister’s jet, taking him onward to Turkey where he was given a national hero’s welcome.
Bulgaria fumed over his defection and Suleymanoglu was initially suspended for a year. But he then stormed to victory at the 1988 Olympic Games.
He built up one of the sport’s greatest rivalries with Greece’s Valerios Leonidis, which was followed avidly by Turkish and Greek communities across the world.
After picking up a third Olympic title in Atlanta, he tried a comeback at the 2000 Sydney Games but suffered a rare failure and subsequently dabbled in politics.