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"Pocket Hercules' lifts the world

Among a century of athletically adroit modern Olympians, plus some naked originals who competed in the Games of ancient Greece, there maybe has never been a more wondrous physical phenomenon than Naim Suleymanoglu.

The Pocket Hercules.

Suleymanoglu is a magnetic, 4-foot-11, 142-pound Turkish power plant who stunningly pushes 400-plus pounds over his boyish head. Lifting roughly three times his body weight.

Think about that.

It is comparable to a 335-pound hulk like Dallas Cowboys guard Nate Newton or Los Angeles Lakers center Shaq O'Neal being able to put half a ton of iron over head. None of Earth's giants can come close.

Pocket Hercules smashingly unique.

You see his hoisting heroism; you refocus, then rub disbelieving eyes. How can a human so tiny with legs and arms so stubby and hands so childlike be able to push steel so heavy toward the heavens? More surprising yet when you learn that Suleymanoglu is a chain-smoker addicted to potent Turkish cigarettes. Between lifts, he puffs.

Suleymanoglu's 29-year-old life has been a miniseries of weightlifting gold medals, goose-bumpy political dramatics, including a daring defection from communist Bulgaria and unsubsiding Olympic wonderworks.

Stay tuned. Full story ahead.

But first, Monday's latest Suleymanoglu chapter, which could wind up being the purest, least-complicated, most defining moment of the Atlanta Games. It was man against barbells. Hercules against the world.

Turkish flags and Naim-adoring voices reached a competitive tizzy in Hall E of the World Congress Center. Ironically, a gutsy challenger from the oldest among Olympic nations, Greece's Valerios Leonidis, was putting muscular heat on the power shrimp from Istanbul who grunted to gold at Seoul in 1988 and again at Barcelona in 1992.

Leonidis clean-and-jerked 396} pounds, an exercise that demands putting barbell to chin and then, in a second phase, raising it on skyward until arms are fully extended. He took the lead. Greeks were in roaring Georgia ecstasy.

Suleymanoglu needed a lift of 407} pounds to be No. 1 again. Pocket Hercules whooshed one deep breath and did it. Rock 'n' roll music erupted. Turks in the gallery were going berserk. From the entire assemblage of 4,000, there came a standing ovation.

Drama kept mushrooming.

It had come down to the two mighty little men; gold for one, silver for the near-misser. Xiao Jiangang of China had peaked out, settling for the bronze medal.

Leonidis was slow to back down from Turkey's renowned terror. He put up a world record 413\ pounds. Blue-and-white flags flapped as the Greek contingent again shook the house with screams.

American musical oldies from Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and the Village People were helping fuel the moment. It had become mano-a-mite-mano sensational.

Suleymanoglu, who had built a slight lead in the snatch portion of the final, has just one lift remaining. If he could match the 413\ of the Greek, the overall advantage would swing back to the Pocket Hercules.

Of course he did it.

Suleymanoglu showed his first exotic emotions, swinging an achieving fist toward the Turkish section. His work was done. Leonidis had one last chance. Barbell was loaded with 418} pounds, more than the Greek had ever handled. Execute the lift and the gold medal belonged to Leonidis in an upset. He got the bar halfway home, then screeched while trying to reach the sky. Arms would crumble. Barbell tumbled prematurely. No lift.

Third gold for Pocket Hercules.

Suleymanoglu was born in Bulgaria of Turkish parents. His mother died in childbirth. Despite his unusually small stature, Naim was sensationally strong and began breaking world weightlifting records by age 15.

But non-sports frustration was building. Turks were being persecuted by communists. Moslems saw their religion made illegal. Bulgarian officials told the Pocket Hercules to change is his name to Sulymanirov or Chalamonov. Something with more of a party ring. Turkish names were even being erased in graveyards, hacked from headstones by government agents.

Naim would've gone to the 1984 Olympics on Bulgaria's team but Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the Los Angeles Games. In 1985, he went to Australia with fellow Bulgarian lifters and won World Cup gold at Melbourne. There was an awards dinner. Before medal presentations, Suleymanoglu explained a need to leave the head table and visit a restroom. Instead he ducked out a back door, hid for three days in the home of a Turkish man and then made it to Turkey's embassy in Melbourne to ask political asylum.

Suleymanoglu was flown to his adopted homeland. Ankara, Istanbul and other locales went mad for the Pocket Hercules. At Seoul, he won the country's first Olympic gold in 20 years. Traffic died in Turkish streets and flights were grounded at airports as a nation paused to watch on TV.

President Turgut Ozal sent his private jet to fetch Naim from South Korea. There would be a series of Charles Lindbergh-type parades of Turk celebration. Headlines termed him "Kucek Dev Adam" (Little Big Man).

Banks and newspapers showered Naim with an estimated $2-million in rewards. He was given apartments plus a Mercedes. Ozal hired three bodyguards, principally to protect Suleymanoglu from being taken away by Bulgarian intruders.

Since then, his status has only risen. With Naim's fame and the splintering of communism in Bulgaria, more than 350,000 Turks have joined Naim in fleeing. Suleymanoglu had seen Olympic glory, personal wealth, the freeing of family and friends, plus adoration so immense that it gets scary.

He is to Turkey what Michael Jordan is to America. Perhaps more. But this is a man so small that he almost could set up housekeeping in an Air Jordan sneaker.

Little man ... huge story.

Mighty mites

Naim Suleymanoglu, known as Pocket Hercules, can lift nearly three times his own weight of 141 pounds. He won his third Olympic gold medal Monday with a clean and jerk of 413 1/4 pounds. The average human can't lift his weight over his head.

The larger the creature is, the less efficient it is as a weightlifter. An elephant can support 1 ton on its back _ but that is only a quarter of its body weight. An ant can lift 50 times its body weight!