SEOUL, South Korea — The huge interview room was nearly empty when the little man walked in. It was 2 in the afternoon. In one hour, Carl Lewis, the Olympic superstar, was due to speak about his greatness and the place would be packed. But now there were just a few of us with nothing better to do and we were drinking Cokes with our feet up.
The little man sat down, alongside his interpreter, and he tapped the microphone and it squeaked. “May I introduce Naim Suleymanoglu,” the interpreter said, in Turkish-tinted English. “He is the Olympic gold medalist weight lifter in the 132- pound category. We will take your questions. . . .”
The Americans rolled their eyes and tried not to laugh. Finally, a Turkish reporter in the front of the room stood and asked a question about the athlete’s defecting from Bulgaria. And the little man, who, the night before, had grabbed a weighted bar of more than 400 pounds and heaved it over his head, began to speak in a soft and sometimes trembling voice. And after two minutes we put down our Cokes and began writing what is the best story of these Olympic Games so far.
What’s in a name? Naim Suleymanoglu may not be an easy name to pronounce, but if it were yours, the name your parents gave you, would you fight to keep it? In Bulgaria four years ago you had to, if you were of Turkish descent, because the government had decided to rub out your heritage — no more speaking in Turkish, no visiting Turkish mosques, no Turkish cultural displays. One day they came around and told the Suleymanoglu family it would now be called Chlamanov, a good Bulgarian name. And the son, not even five feet tall, with more muscle than skin, said no.
“I have a name. A man should have one name. If you steal his name against his will, you make him a nobody.”
And from that day on, he vowed to escape.
It took him nearly two years. He was, after all, a champion weight lifter, a national hero; he’d broken countless world records — they called him
“Pocket Hercules” — and Bulgaria wasn’t about to surrender one of its few sports stars.
“They had control over me,” recalled Suleymanoglu, 20. “After every international competition, I had to return immediately to Bulgaria. They listened to my phone calls. They watched me always. They knew I was trying to defect and they wanted to stop me.”
He never told his parents; just knowing could get them in trouble. So he dreamed silently of freedom until finally, in 1986, he met some Turks who agreed to help him. The rest is like a Robert Ludlum novel. He was in Melbourne, Australia; he had just won a major competition and, at the banquet that evening, he stood up and “made the image of going to bathroom.” Then he ducked out a door into a car and hid in a house for three days.
“All during that competition I was thinking of freedom. I had hoped to break the world record that night, but I could not concentrate.”
“Were you scared?” he was asked.
“In Bulgaria,” he said, “you are scared every day.”
When his absence was discovered, the Bulgarians immediately accused the Turks of smuggling their athlete against his will. The defector was flown to London, where he told reporters it was his idea all along. He then declared his name, proudly, loudly, his real name. Thus began the quick burning of Naim Suleymanoglu’s family ties.
“They do not let me see my parents,” he said now, his voice cracking. “It has been two years. For the first five months, I could not even speak on the phone. Now I can talk sometimes on the phone, but they listen to everything.
“The gold medal is very important. But the most important thing to me right now is to be together with my family. I would like to do this.”
He paused as his words were translated and his boyish face was sad and unblinking. By this point, many reporters had begun to filter into the room, trying to get a good seat for the Carl Lewis show. They listened to this story and soon the pads were out and everybody was writing.
“Do your parents know you won?” he was asked.
“I am certain it was not allowed on Bulgarian TV,” came the answer.
“Then they don’t know about your gold medal?”
“Unless they listened to Turkish radio, no.”
“How did you feel on the medals stand when you saw the Turkish flag raised?”
He sighed. “All the time I live in Bulgaria, I have always felt something going on in my heart. . . . This is my history, to be Turkish. I wanted to . .
. I knew that. . . .”
He choked up and said he could not finish the answer, he was sorry. The translator had begun to cry.
Tuesday night, when Suleymanoglu hoisted that bar and locked it over his head and smiled even as he grimaced — victory! glory! a world record! — the entire Turkish Olympic team was in the audience. They began waving and swaying in celebration. They were mostly men with black hair and mustaches and Suleymanoglu is brown-haired and light-skinned but he is theirs, a national hero, and he had just won three gold medals (the snatch, the clean and jerk and total lifts) — his new country’s first Olympic gold in 20 years. They did not come cheaply. There is talk that in order to allow him to compete, the Turkish government had to pay $1.5 million to Bulgaria to waive a ban on his Olympic eligibility. Cash for gold.
No such payoff would free his family. Tomorrow, a plane will arrive for Suleymanoglu — the prime minister’s private jet — and he will be whisked back to Turkey for a national celebration. One little man, with the strength of three, inside a big airplane, all alone.
He talked about the two million other Bulgarian Turks. He talked about his brothers, and how he wishes he knew where they were. He talked about being a scrawny kid, and getting into weight lifting “because I wanted to be powerful,” yet he could now lift three times his body weight and still could not pull the sadness from his voice.
By the end, the room was half-full. And when the translator said, “Thank you for coming,” the journalists — and I have never seen this happen — stood and applauded.
We forget about the world. We take out privileges for granted. Who fights for their name anymore?
He did. Turkey, from what people tell me, is no haven of human rights itself, but this is not a contest of countries. This is about individuality, the right to be addressed as you wish, the right to your religion and expression, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is pretty much what gave birth to America.
The room began to fill with TV cameras and lights. The buzz of conversation grew louder as news came that Lewis and his entourage were about to arrive.
Suleymanoglu followed his translator off the podium and walked toward the door. And, suddenly, first one, then three, then 10, then 20 reporters began to follow him. An hour earlier, they had never heard of the guy, and they certainly were supposed to cover Lewis, who was about to enter in striped pants and a black muscle T-shirt, but the hell with it.
“Who is that little man?” someone asked me.
“I think he’s the Olympics,” I said. And as I watched him disappear, it seemed like giving him a gold medal was the least the world could do. CUTLINE
Naim Suleymanoglu of Turkey sets a world record in the 60- kilogram lift.