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Naim Suleymanoglu

Escapes To Turkey

As part of a campaign to eliminate Turkish culture and identity within their borders, Bulgarian officials closed Turkish mosques and schools, passed laws prohibiting people from speaking Turkish, and ordered all of the country's 900,000 Turks to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Suleymanoglu was ordered to change his name to Naum Shalamanov. The last straw came one day when Communist officials showed up with a television crew and told him to say that he had always been Bulgar, and that the only reason he had a Turkish name was that his ancestors had been forced to adopt one by the Ottoman rulers. He refused, but the next day there was an article in the paper, claiming he had said this. He had never even spoken to the author of the article, much less denied his Turkish heritage.

In response, during a 1986 competition in Australia, he defected from Bulgaria and sought Turkish citizenship. Although athletes who changed citizenship were normally not allowed to compete for their new country until three years had passed, the Turkish government paid Bulgaria $1 million in order to have this ban waived so that Suleymanoglu could compete for Turkey in the 1988 Olympics. It was money well spent. At the Games in Seoul, Korea, Suleymanoglu set six world records, won a gold medal, and even out-lifted the winner of the weight class above his own.

As a Turkish athlete, Suleymanoglu became a national hero in his new country, receiving parades and over 20 houses as a reward for his achievements. According to Pat Forde in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, one million fans showed up at the airport to welcome him home to Turkey after his gold medal. Also, because of the enormous publicity he received, the world became aware of Bulgaria's oppression of Turks. In response to world outcry, Bulgarian officials had to allow Suleymanoglu's parents to emigrate to Turkey, and they also let over 320,000 Turks leave their country and settle in Turkey.

Suleymanoglu quit his sport in 1990 but soon returned to competition. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Suleymanoglu won a second gold medal, making him the most famed athlete in Turkey. According to Alan Abrahamson in the Los Angeles Times, a Turkish television sports director said of Suleymanoglu, "If he comes to a roadblock when he is driving, it is removed for him. If he eats in a restaurant, no one will ask him to pay. If he drives beyond the speed limit, police wave him on ahead."

Chronology

1967 Born in Kircali, Bulgaria
1977 Sent away from his family to a training school
1982 Sets his first world record
1984 Misses Olympic Games because of his country's boycott
1986 Defects from Bulgaria to Turkey
1988 Wins gold medal at Seoul Olympics
1990 Retires, but soon returns to competition
1992 Wins gold medal at Barcelona Olympics
1996 Wins gold medal at Atlanta Olympics
2000 Competes in Sydney Olympics, but fails on all his attempts to lift
2000 Retires from competition

Additional topics

Famous Sports StarsOther SportsNaim Suleymanoglu Biography - "a Back Wide Enough To Play Poker On", Escapes To Turkey, Chronology, A Third Gold Medal - CONTACT INFORMATION