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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BILL PLASCHKE

This Competition Gives Everyone Involved a Lift

July 23, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — Not every Olympic event is about one moment in time. Some are about hundreds of years, about passions strong enough to weather a trip from the Balkan peninsula to a basement gym in the American South.

Which is what happened here Monday, when two extraordinary men lifted not only world-record amounts of colored disks but also the spirits of strife-torn countries looking for an excuse not to hate.

The official story is that Naim Suleymanoglu, the 4-foot-11 human tire jack from Turkey, jerked a world-record 413 1/4 pounds over his tiny body to win a third consecutive gold medal in the 141-pound division.

The official story is that he ventured past all known limits only because he was pushed there by a Greek named Valerios Leonidis.

That is the official story.

The unofficial story was in the stares.

Not between the competitors, but between their fans.

Hundreds of flag-waving Turks on the right side of the Georgia World Congress Center stage.

Hundreds of flag-waving Greeks on the left.

"Turk-iii-yeee" on the right.

"Hel-las" on the left.

Red on the right.

Blue on the left.

Twenty-five yards between them.

Nobody assigned this mixture of foreigners and transplants to those seats. All tickets were general admission.

It just happened that when a few Turks who run a local restaurant plopped down on the right side and held up a flag, other Turk fans joined them.

And when a Greek guy who runs a restaurant saw this, he took the other side. Other Greeks joined him.

And both groups shrugged.

Nothing like this had been planned, but then, what else in the endless strife between these two countries has ever been planned?

The Ottoman Empire. The conflict in Cyprus. The constant battle for the control of the Aegean Sea. Now, a weightlifting stage.

"It has always been this way," said Muammer Durson, an electrical specialist from Turkey who has lived in Atlanta 19 years. "We are here. . . . They are over there."

The event began with the Turks waving and dancing and pointing.

Suleymanoglu, nicknamed "Pocket Hercules," is their national hero. Leonidis has never beaten him. They wanted to remind.

"Today is for Turkish pride," said Eda Yavunco, a student from Istanbul. "I hope the Greek guy does not win."

Across the stage, necks tightened.

"The Turks came in and moved my family from their home in Cyprus, we have never recovered," said Michael Petrou, a professor from the University of South Carolina. "This, maybe, is one way we can beat them."

The Turks continued to shout. The Greeks continued to glare.

The competitors mirrored the two moods.

Suleymanoglu strutted out with messy hair, and no shirt, a baggy singlet and a yellow-toothed sneer.

Leonidis followed with neatly combed black hair, a neat T-shirt over his singlet, a perfect smile.

In early lifts, neither competitor acknowledged the fans, as if they knew this was about more than them.

But then the nine other competitors buckled.

And for several minutes that some said were the most exciting in weightlifting history, it was about nothing else.

The weight was at 402 pounds, more than the previous best for Leonidis.

But not enough for Suleymanoglu. It was his turn, and he told the judges to increase it to 408 pounds.

Suleymanoglu swaggered up, blew one long breath from his tiny mouth, and promptly jerked it above his head. After dropping the weights, he rapped his finger into his chest.

He was the one. The Turks roared. The Greeks buried faces into hands.

Now it was Leonidis' turn. Because he lifted less than Suleymanoglu in the earlier snatch competition, he would lose a tie in the clean-and-jerk.

He needed more. He told the judges to increase it again, to 413 1/4 pounds.

He had never come close to this weight before. This was more than 17 pounds greater than his previous lift.

From both sides, there was silence.

"We were shaking," said George Kementzidis, a restaurant owner from Connecticut.

"It was hard to believe," said Durson.

Leonidis stepped up, squinted, and lifted it. A world record. The Greeks leaped from their seats into the aisles. The Turks slumped into theirs.

But it was not over. It was Suleymanoglu's turn. A tie would win it for him.

This time he swaggered less. He covered his upper body in powder. When he bent to grab the bar, his face was tighter.

But one big breath later, the bar was high above his head. He had done it.

He dropped the bar and shook his fists and now, the Turks were falling over each other in the bleachers, caught in their red flags and red-inked signs and passion.

The Greeks froze for an instant, then began shouting. Their man had one more chance. Leonidis could still win the gold, because Suleymanoglu was out of turns, but he needed an inhuman final lift at 418 3/4 pounds.

He couldn't get it above his waist. The weights fell, so did his face.

Suleymanoglu had won again, the first weightlifter in history to win three gold medals.

But then after both lifters left the stage, something funny happened.

The staring stopped. The cheering started.

Cheering from both sides. Cheering together. Standing together. All of them shouting, most of them waving.

Almost as if they were waving at each other.

"Good competitors should be cheered, no matter who they are," said Durson the Turk.

"I think, maybe, we were all celebrating," said Kementzidis the Greek. "You Americans think gold medals are everything. Gold medals are not everything."

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