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Finally, the weight is too heavy for 'Pocket Hercules'

By Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- He is 33 years old, smokes 50 cigarettes daily for his inner peace and had won the gold medal in the featherweight class in three consecutive Olympics.

Being the "Pocket Hercules" seemed to mean that Naim Suleymanoglu, a 136-pound Bulgarian who became an icon in his adopted Turkey, was invulnerable to age and the inevitable fraying of legend.

Three times Sunday, Suleymanoglu tried to raise 319 pounds in one move over his head, in the competition's snatch segment. Each time, the weight was too heavy.

His myth of Olympic invincibility concluded when he could not advance to the clean and jerk phase.

Maybe it was the years of retirement since his victory at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Or maybe it was the hubris of choosing to start the snatch at 319 pounds, the highest weight attempted by the 11 competitors.

In his final attempt, Suleymanoglu lifted the barbell with the green and red weights; he nearly stabilized it high over his head. But his right knee wobbled. Suleymanoglu closed his eyes, and then, the 5-foot-tall man known for godly feats of strength dropped the barbell behind him.

He placed his right hand to his heart, threw kisses and jogged off the stage, exposing his chest as he flipped off the top half of his singlet.

He still was cheered by a large group of supporters in recognition of an extraordinary career.

"Goodbye, it's over," he told reporters.

Suleymanoglu's gold medal successor is Nikolai Pechalov, also a native Bulgarian, who emigrated to Croatia three years ago. Pechalov set Olympic records for the snatch, hoisting 330 pounds, and his 715-pound total.

Pechalov brings a new look to the featherweight class, which has a 137-pound limit. Suleymanoglu's disproportionately long torso and short legs gave him the appearance of a much larger man bursting to lift still heavier weights. Pechalov looks like pop star Rick Springfield or the Yankees' Paul O'Neill (with the same serious mien) with brown curls down to his shoulders.

Suleymanoglu, who believes he was robbed of a fourth Olympic title when Bulgaria joined the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, returned to competition this year but managed only third place in the European championships. The writing was on the wall.

Sunday, after he did not come close with his first two lifts, the tension was palpable as he attempted his third.

Face creased in concentration, he slowly raised the bar from the squat position, but again the effort was too much. The greatest weightlifter in the history of the Games dropped the bar and left an Olympic arena for the last time.

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