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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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Larry Nassar judge, Olympians back USOC oversight push in Congress

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DENVER (AP) — The judge who sentenced former sports doctor Larry Nassar to prison and a group of Olympians are backing an effort to create a commission to look into the operations of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina joined the athletes and Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette in Denver on Monday to announce the planned introduction of the bipartisan bill Tuesday in the House. It mirrors one introduced in January by Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in the Senate, a standard practice in Congress. It would set up a panel of 16 people, half of them Olympians or Paralympians, with subpoena power.

Aquilina urged people to ask their congressional representatives to support the legislation and add their names as co-sponsors. Aquilina said she became involved because this wasn’t a partisan issue, but a “human thing. This is justice for everybody. Isn’t that what judges are supposed to be — about equal justice?”

“It’s troubling for me to hear that money and medals are valued more than the safety of athletes. We have to flip that script,” added Aquilina, who sentenced Nassar to what equates to life in prison. “How is it that the Olympics do not protect their athletes? That’s their company. That’s their bread and butter.”

The latest legislation to establish the commission comes six months after a congressional report in the wake of the Nassar sex-abuse case that recommended a review of the law that governs the USOC and how the USOC can use its authority to more actively protect athletes.

USOC spokesman Mark Jones said in a statement they will “continue to work constructively with both the House and the Senate to create healthy and safe environments for the American athletes we serve.”

Among the panel’s duties would be to evaluate how responsive the national governing bodies of each Olympic sports are to the athletes, and whether the U.S. Center for SafeSport has proper funding to effectively respond to any future reports of harassment and sexual assault. In addition, the panel would review the diversity of the USOC’s board members, its finances and whether it’s achieving its stated goals.

Gardner said he’s talked to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about serving on the panel. “That’s likely the kind of caliber that we need,” Gardner said.

Olympic champions Nancy Hogshead-Makar, BJ Bedford and Norm Bellingham, along with Paralympic gold medalist Sarah Will were among those in attendance.

“No amount of gold medals are worth putting the health and safety of our athletes at risk,” DeGette said. “When the very body that Congress created to care for our athletes becomes more concerned about winning and protecting a brand than the athletes themselves — it’s time for change.”

Rob Koehler said he believes this will be a big step forward for athletes. He’s the director general of a group called Global Athlete, which is designed to help athletes gain a more represented voice.

“It’s time to make sure there is independent oversight, that the government takes a brave leadership role, not only for the United States but as an example for other countries, that it’s no longer acceptable for sport to self-govern itself,” Koehler said. “It’s all about the athletes. We lose focus of that. This movement is about celebrating athletes’ victories, and the growth potential is there.”

MORE: ‘This is not Burger King’: Nassar request denied by Aquilina

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Luca Urlando breaks Michael Phelps butterfly record

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Luca Urlando, the grandson of an Italian Olympic hammer thrower, appears to be the U.S. successor to Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly.

Urlando, 17, broke Phelps’ national 17-18 age group record in Phelps’ trademark event on Friday night, clocking 1:53.84 at a Tyr Pro Series meet in Clovis, Calif. Phelps’ mark (1:53.93) was set in 2003, when it doubled as the world record. Urlando previously broke high school age group records held by Phelps and Caeleb Dressel in 25-yard pools.

Urlando is now the third-fastest American in history in the 200m butterfly behind Phelps and Tyler Clary. He also ranks third in the world this year behind Hungarians Kristof Milak and Tamas Kenderesi.

But Urlando will not be at July’s world championships as that team was decided in 2018.

Last summer, Urlando was the highest-ranking U.S. swimmer not to make the Pan Pacific Championships team, though it was initially announced that he did make it.

Had Urlando made Pan Pacs and then swum .17 faster there than he did at nationals, he would have made the team for July’s world championships. Urlando went to Junior Pan Pacs instead last summer and did not swim faster than at nationals.

Should Urlando make the Tokyo Games, he is in line to be the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Phelps made his Olympic debut.

His grandfather, Giampaolo Urlando, threw the hammer for Italy at the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Olympics with a best finish of seventh. He originally was fourth at Los Angeles 1984 before being disqualified for testosterone.

Luca’s father, Alessandro Urlando, holds the University of Georgia school record in the discus. Luca, a rising Sacramento high school senior, is committed to Georgia.

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