Naim Suleimanov, the tiny Bulgarian teen-age weightlifter, might have become one of the stars of the 1984 Olympics if not for the boycott of the Soviet Bloc countries.
Suleimanov would have been a perfect media star for a sport that is low on mass appeal, at least in the United States. Suleimanov, 17, looks even younger because he has a baby face. But he totally dominated the 123-pound class last year, becoming the first to lift triple body weight and setting world records in the snatch, clean and total.
Weightlifting officials say that Soviet Vasily Alexeyev, two-time gold medal winner and the sport's last big star, was a poor role model because of his massive size. They argue that if Suleimanov had received Olympic TV exposure last year, their sport might have taken off like gymnastics.
Suleimanov was a sure bet for a gold medal. He had a better total than the Olympic gold medalist in his class. But he'll have to wait until 1988, when he'll be 21, to compete in the Olympics.
Super heavyweight Anatoly Pisarenko of the Soviet Union, another likely candidate for Olympic stardom, won't be around for the 1988 Games. Pisarenko was kicked off the Soviet team earlier this year after he was arrested for attempting to smuggle steroids into Canada.
Weightlifting, at least in the U.S., could probably use a role-model like Suleimanov to create more interest and excitement in the sport. United States Weightlifting Federation (USWF) officials complained that the sport got minimal TV coverage during the 1984 Games.
"We didn't get a lot of publicity," said Bob Takano, a member of the USWF board. "Registration was down in 1984 and I don't think it's up in 1985. Right now, things look bleak."
However, Harvey Newton, the 1984 U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach and executive director of the USWF, said that 1,532 athletes were registered with the USWF last year and the figure is close to 2,000 this year.
Ironically, the USWF is probably healthier now, from a financial standpoint, than it has ever been. The USWF has received about $650,000 from the Olympics. Part of the money will go to create the United States Amateur Weightlifting Foundation. The Foundation will give out scholarships to lifters who are enrolled in colleges and trade schools.
Newton will continue as executive director of the USWF, but he said he won't be the 1988 Olympic Coach. The USWF board will select a coach next year for the Seoul Games.
The new coach will have a big job ahead of him because from a competitive standpoint, U.S. weightlifters aren't catching up to lifters from the Soviet Bloc. Performances have been down this year. For example, there were six unsuccessful American record attempts at the national championships last May.
The Soviet Bloc boycott was supposed to help the United States win more Olympic weightlifting medals in 1984, but U.S. lifters were shut out in 8 out of 10 classes.
Mario Martinez of San Francisco almost won the gold medal in the super heavyweight class, but he had to settle for the silver when Dinko Lukim of Australia edged him by a total of 5 1/2 pounds. The other American medal winner was Guy Carlton, who won the bronze in the heavyweight class. Carlton also plans to continue through 1988.
Martinez, who weighed 286 pounds during the Games, had talked of coming down to a lighter weight class this year, but he has scrapped that plan and now is reportedly even heavier than he was last year. Martinez plans to continue lifting at least until after the 1988 Olympics.
Jeff Michels and Curt White, perhaps the two best lifters in the U.S., didn't compete in the 1984 Olympics. However, both say they hope to be around until 1988.
Michels was suspended by the International Weightlifting Federation because he tested positive for testosterone at the Pan American Games in 1983. He got a Federal court order that allowed him to compete in the Olympic Trials in Las Vegas, but wasn't allowed to lift at the Games.
White participated in the Olympic Trials, but that was as far as he got due to a technicality, when he released the bar to the ground in the clean and jerk too soon after a successful lift. The bar can't be released until the lifter's hands are at waist level.
Albert Hood of Los Angeles, who set two American records en route to finishing fifth in the 123-pound class, also plans to continue training for 1988.
John Bergman of San Francisco, who finished behind Martinez in the 1984 Olympic Trials at Las Vegas, has also been lifting well this year and has qualified for the World Championships next month in Sweden. Newton said Bergman is likely to make the 1988 Olympic team.