Naim Suleymanoglu was born in Bulgaria when Turks in the Balkan country had been facing brutal assimilation policies under the communist regime. He defected to Turkey with a clandestine operation of Turkish state during World Lifting Championship in Melbourne, Australia. Journalist Tayfun Bayindir whom later recreated his escape from Bulgarian authorities said during an interview that he can’t believe that no movie had been produced to tell his life story. The movie, Pocket Hercules, which tells the story of the greatest weightlifter ever lived to hit the theaters on October 22nd in Turkey.
Naim Suleymanoglu was born on January 23rd, 1967 in Kircaali, Bulgaria. His name was Naum Shalamanov as Turks in Bulgaria were banned from having Turkish names. He won international medals while competing for Bulgaria but he was not happy with the assimilation policies of communist Bulgarian regime. Turkish authorities were notified that he was willing to escape Turkey, according to Turkish media. Turkish Intelligence Agency and Foreign Ministry conducted a clandestine operation in 1986 when Suleymanoglu was in Australia for the World Heavyweight Lifting Championship. Suleymanoglu managed to slip away from Bulgarian officials whom were also aware that he could be looking for an opportunity to flee. Suleymanoglu was taken to a mosque in Melbourne and to an undisclosed location from there. Turkish intel officers were in contact with Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal. As soon as a green light was given by Ozal, Suleymanoglu was flown to London and to Turkey from there. He was met by Ozal when he landed in Ankara. He kissed the airport tarmac on his arrival in Turkey. Suleymanoglu spoke only a few words in Turkish as Turks in Bulgaria were not allowed to speak in their native tongue.
Suleymanoglu won many Olympic and gold medals, broke records after records. He broke the world record in 1988 Summer Olympics by lifting 190 kilogram in clean and jerk. His 147 centimeter height and unmatched strength earned him the nickname “The Pocket Hercules.” He won three straight Olympic gold medals for Turkey between 1988 and 1996. He also won seven world and six European championships. He revolutionized Turkey’s Weightlifting sport until he died in 2017 at the age of 50. He is still considered as the greatest weightlifter of the world.
He was an outspoken critic of the Bulgarian government’s treatment of the Turkish minority. His escape encouraged thousands of other Turks follow his path to escape.
His amazing life story has finally been adapted to movies. November 18th was his passing anniversary and hundreds of Turks as well as the movie cast visited his grave to pay tribute him. Ethnic Turks in Bulgaria still face several right issues despite the fall of communism and the Balkan country entering the European Union.