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‘Pocket Hercules,’ Olympic weightlifting legend, dies at 50

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Naim Suleymanoglu, Turkey’s triple Olympic champion weightlifter nicknamed “Pocket Hercules,” died at age 50 on Saturday.

Suleymanoglu was hospitalized with liver failure on Sept. 28 in Istanbul. He underwent a liver transplant Oct. 6, then remained in intensive care due to a brain hemorrhage and further Nov. 11 surgery, according to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency.

The 5-foot, 136-pound Suleymanoglu became the first weightlifter to win three Olympic titles, doing so in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

He could clean and jerk three times his body weight, helping gain his famous nickname.

Suleymanoglu was born Naim Suleimanov in a Bulgarian mountain village. He wanted to start weightlifting at age 9, when he was 3-foot-9 and 55 pounds.

He was a world medalist by age 16 and a world champion by 18 but missed the 1984 Olympics in between due to Bulgaria joining the Soviet-led boycott.

He defected from Bulgaria in 1986 after charges of human rights violations, even murders, by Bulgarian authorities against the country’s ethnic Turks. Bulgaria was attempting to change Turkish names to Slavic ones in an assimilation process.

All this happened during Suleymanoglu’s eight-year winning streak in major competition, starting as a Bulgarian competitor and finishing representing Turkey.

He decided to defect after seeing that his name would be changed. Suleymanoglu kept his plan a secret for a year before leaving the Bulgarian team at a competition in Australia in December 1986. He then changed his name to Naim Suleymanoglu, which means Naim, son of Suleyman, in Turkish.

Five months before the 1988 Olympics, Turkey’s weightlifting president took $1 million in a suitcase to a Bulgarian hotel in order to obtain the unconditional release of Suleymanoglu to compete for Turkey at the Seoul Games.

Under rules at the time, an athlete had to sit out one year before competing for a new country at the Olympics. Plus, Bulgaria had to agree to Suleymanoglu’s change of athletic citizenship. If not, Suleymanoglu would have had to wait three years before competing for Turkey.

Turkish journalists said that three men counted the money three times, a 6 1/2-hour undertaking.

Suleymanoglu was cleared to compete for Turkey and dominated the Olympic featherweight division in 1988 (broke six world records) and 1992 (won by 33 pounds).

Suleymanoglu’s featherweight duel with Greek Valerios Leonidis at the 1996 Atlanta Games was called “the greatest weightlifting competition in history” by the public address announcer.

They traded world records in the clean and jerk finale. Leonidis finally failed at 419 pounds in an attempt to dethrone Suleymanoglu. Pocket Hercules retired with a world record total weight lifted for the division (738 pounds between the snatch and clean and jerk).

Suleymanoglu then ran for Turkish parliament but only received 1,000 votes.

Suleymanoglu came out of retirement ahead of the 2000 Sydney Games. At 33, he hoped to join Carl LewisAl Oerter and Paul Elvstrom as the only athletes to win four golds in an individual event.

He failed at all three attempts in the snatch, eliminating him from the competition.

The Turkish government reportedly rewarded Suleymanoglu with a new house every time he won a world title (seven world titles, plus the three Olympic golds). He also owned two gas stations.

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Yevgenia Medvedeva leads after short program at Autumn Classic

Yevgenia Medvedeva
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Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva leads after Thursday’s short program at her season opener, the Autumn Classic International. In her first competition since moving to Toronto to train under Brian Orser, Medvedeva scored 70.89 points.

Olympic team event bronze medalist Bradie Tennell sits in second place heading into Friday’s free skate with 69.26 points. Tennell, the reigning U.S. national champion, was joined by countrywoman Starr Andrews in Ontario. Andrews scored 56.70 points and finished fifth in the short program.

France’s Mae Berenice Meite rounds out the top three with 58.23 points.

Earlier on Thursday, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres from France scored 73.81 points to build their lead over the pairs’ field. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro from Canada were second with 64.73 points, followed by the two American teams: Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier (61.91) and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson (50.25), who competed internationally as new partners for the first time.

Competition at the Autumn Classic continues this weekend. Friday features the rhythm dance, men’s short program, and the pairs’ and ladies’ free skates. Saturday concludes competition with the free dance and men’s free skate. The event will stream live on Skate Canada’s Dailymotion page.

Elsewhere in the world of figure skating this weekend, Rika Kihira took the ladies’ short program at the Nepela Trophy in Bratislava. The reigning world junior champion attempted her triple Axel to open her “Clair de Lune” program but fell and was awarded -5 Grades of Execution across the board. She tallied 70.79 points and leads Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva by just 0.8 points. Russian Stanislava Konstantinova is third with 65.03 points.

Russian men lead the field after the short program in Bratislava. Mikhail Kolyada scored 96.82 points while Sergei Voronov earned 81.77 points. Japan’s Keiji Tanaka currently sits third with 77.53 points.

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc have a three-point lead on the pairs’ field after the short program with 65.68 points. Deanna Stellato and Nathan Bartholomay, the other Americans in the field, are third with 59.60 points in their first competition of the season.

Competition continues at the Nepela Trophy this weekend with the rhythm dance and pairs’ free skate on Friday and the ladies’ free skate, free dance, and men’s free skate on Saturday.

MORE: Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova delays season opener by one week

Despite protests, Russias anti-doping agency reinstated

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The World Anti-Doping Agency declared Russia’s scandal-ridden drug-fighting operation back in business Thursday, a decision designed to bring a close to one of sports’ most notorious doping scandals but one bitterly disputed by hundreds of athletes and described as “treachery” by the lawyer for the man who exposed the corruption.

On a 9-2 vote, the executive committee took the advice of the agency’s compliance review panel and declared RUSADA as having satisfied conditions of reinstatement that were gradually softened over the summer.

In most tangible ways, the decision doesn’t change much: RUSADA has been up and running for a while, bringing one of the world’s largest testing programs back on line with the help of officials from Britain and elsewhere. And Russia’s Olympic committee was brought back into the fold after the Pyeongchang Olympics, where athletes who could prove they were clean were able to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”

But RUSADA’s reinstatement now clears the country to again bid for major international events — although soccer’s World Cup was held there this summer despite that restriction.

It also clears a major hurdle for Russia’s track team to be declared compliant by that sport’s international governing body, one of the few to take a strong, consistent stand against doping.

Perhaps most importantly, hundreds of athletes and dozens of world anti-doping leaders see it as a stinging rebuke to the ideal of fair play.

“WADA’s decision to reinstate Russia represents the greatest treachery against clean athletes in Olympic history,” said Jim Walden, the attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow lab director who exposed much of the Russian scheme.

WADA had been telegraphing the move since Sept. 14, when it released the recommendation of its compliance review committee. Olympic champion Beckie Scott resigned from that committee afterward.

“I’m profoundly disappointed,” Scott said to Canadian broadcaster CBC after the decision. “I feel this was an opportunity for WADA, and they have dealt a devastating blow to clean sport. I’m quite dismayed.”

Even in Russia, where the news was welcomed, it came with a sense that there’s still work to be done.

“These questions will always follow us,” said RUSADA CEO Yuri Ganus, whose appointment to the job was part of the housecleaning at the agency that WADA demanded. “These aren’t the kind of skeletons which can lie unnoticed in the closet. These are the skeletons which will be banging on the closet door all the time.”

The two biggest roadblocks to RUSADA’s reinstatement involved the country accepting findings from a report by investigator Richard McLaren that concluded the government had engineered the doping scandal to win medals at the Sochi Olympics. It also involved Russia agreeing to hand over a trove of data and samples that could be used to corroborate potential doping violations that stemmed from the cheating.

Over a summer’s worth of correspondence between WADA leaders and Russia’s sports minister about how to bridge the gap, a pattern emerged of WADA backing down from its initial requirements and, at one point, essentially asking Russia what it would be willing to say in a letter designed to satisfy the WADA review committee.

“We think that a small addition to the letter, if acceptable to you, could ensure that the letter is well received … and that a positive recommendation is provided,” WADA CEO Olivier Niggli wrote to sports minister Pavel Kolobkov in May in a letter obtained by BBC Sport .

In the end, Russia agreed to accept findings of an IOC-commissioned report that put less onus on the Russian government for the scheme, a move that Rodchenkov said earlier this week was done “for the pure purpose of protecting their top-level apparatchiks who destroyed the Olympic Games in Sochi.”

Russia also agreed to hand over the samples and data by Dec. 31. If it does not, RUSADA will again be declared noncompliant.

“Without this pragmatic approach, we would continue with the impasse and the laboratory data could have remained out of our reach indefinitely,” WADA president Craig Reedie said after Thursday’s executive committee meeting in Seychelles.

Critics said reinstating RUSADA before obtaining the data only amounts to accepting another promise from a country that hasn’t kept many over the five-year course of the scandal.

Travis Tygart, the CEO for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called the decision “bewildering and inexplicable,” and urged a full revamping of WADA; Reedie also serves as a member of the IOC, which is one of the many conflicts of interest that bother critics of the agency.

“Let’s be clear: Absolutely nothing will be off the table for how we, the anti-doping community, begin the work of reforming WADA,” Tygart said.

Reedie said “WADA understands that this decision will not please everybody.”

“Clean athletes were denied places at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as other major events, and others were cheated of medals,” he said. “It is entirely understandable that they should be wary about the supposed rehabilitation of offenders.”