Turkey’s legendary triple Olympic gold-medal winning weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu, the diminutive “Pocket Hercules,” has died aged 50, state media said.
Suleymanoglu, was only 1.47 metres (4.8 feet) tall, scored a historic hat-trick of consecutive Olympic titles starting in Seoul in 1988 then Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996.
The Bulgarian-born Suleymanoglu, who had in late September been admitted to intensive care after suffering liver failure, died in hospital in Istanbul, the Anadolu news agency said.
The weightlifter had been given a liver transplant earlier this month after a suitable donor was found and initial reports had said that the surgery was successful.
Suleymanoglu’s exploits made him a national hero in Turkey, where he is regarded as one of the greatest sports personalities in the country’s history.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had visited Suleymanoglu in hospital and received the news while delivering a speech to supporters, expressed his condolences on live television over Suleymanoglu’s death.
“Turkish weightlifting has suffered a great loss,” the head of the Turkish weightlifting federation Tamer Taspinar told Anadolu.
“He was the ‘Pocket Hercules’ who broke 46 records. He was a sportsman who won the hearts not just of the Turkish people but the world,” Taspinar added.
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 Bulgaria 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, which then took him on to Turkey where he was given a 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 Olympics.
The tiny Suleymananoglu wowed spectators with his power and was one of few weightlifters who managed to clean and jerk three times his own bodyweight.
He built up one of the sport’s greatest ever 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. He failed to lift 145kg in three attempts and left Australia empty-handed.
He subsequently dabbled in politics, paying particular attention to the welfare of the Turkish minority in neighbouring Bulgaria and standing as a candidate for parliament for the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
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