Weightlifter who fled communist oppression in Bulgaria to represent Turkey at the Olympics

The weightlifter Naim Sleymanolu escaped the communist oppression of his native Bulgaria by evading the agents detailed to keep an eye on him while he was competing at the world championships in Australia in 1986; he did this by hiding in the toilets at a Melbourne restaurant. He was flown into exile in Turkey and went on to play a significant role in the cross-border movement of hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian ethnic Turks, as well as becoming his new nations most celebrated sportsman.

Sleymanolu, who has died aged 50 from a haemorrhage after liver failure, was named best weightlifter of the 20th century by the sports governing body, and was in Reuters top 12 Olympians across all sports, named in 2012. Because of his change of nationality, and the global publicity that went with it, he had more influence beyond sport than any of the other 11.

His family were among the 900,000 ethnic Turks in Bulgaria forced to change their names in the mid-1980s when Turkish schools and mosques were closed. Speaking their own language was forbidden as Bulgarias communist regime strove to eliminate Turkish culture within the country.

A false newspaper report claiming that he had denied his Turkish heritage infuriated Sleymanolu, whose name had been changed against his will to Naum Shalamanov. He planned his escape a year in advance, though he did not tell his family, as his phone was tapped and agents followed him everywhere.

He was celebrating his victory at the world championships in Melbourne when he escaped for a secretly planned meeting with a local man of Turkish descent. When Turgut zal, the Turkish prime minister, who would later become president, heard that Sleymanolu was free, he organised transport first to London, and then by private jet to Istanbul and Ankara. Ozals son Ahmet said agents of MIT, Turkeys national intelligence service, had outwitted the Bulgarian agents detailed to watch Sleymanolu. This story could be an espionage movie, he said.

zal ensured Sleymanolu was handsomely rewarded for his many victories, with flats, cars and cash. He also provided him with bodyguards for competitions abroad. The most significant of these victories was the Olympic title at Seoul in 1988, the first of three. It would probably have been four had Bulgaria not joined the Soviet bloc boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, for although he was only 17 at the time Sleymanolu had already broken world records, at 4ft 11in earning the nickname the Pocket Hercules.

Nationality regulations forbade Sleymanolu from competing for Turkey in Seoul without Bulgarias permission. zal negotiated a deal with the Bulgarians that cost Turkey more than $1m. Sleymanolu broke six world records in Seoul, and his total of 342.5kg was 30kg clear of his nearest rival. A national holiday was declared when he returned to Turkey, and a sports centre, park and street were named after him.

His exploits, and the story of how he came to represent Turkey, made headlines around the world. Sleymanolu was featured on the front cover of Time magazine; he was invited to the White House by the US president, Ronald Reagan; and he spoke of the Bulgarian Turks plight. Within eight months of his visit to Washington, more than 300,000 of them were allowed to leave on special passports valid only for exit to Turkey. Among them were Sleymanolus parents, whom he had not seen for two years.

His unusual body proportions his forearms were the same length as his upper arms and his torso the same length as his legs gave Sleymanolu the perfect physique for weightlifting. He put it to such good effect that he set dozens of world records, mostly in the 60kg and 64kg featherweight classes, and is one of the select few to have raised more than three times his own body weight above his head.

Born in Momchilgrad, southern Bulgaria, he was one of three brothers. His father, Sleyman, a bus and train driver, and mother, Hatice, both stood under 5ft. Naim was taken from home aged 10 to train relentlessly, starting at two hours a day and building up, by the time he was 15, to eight hours a day, under the coaching of Ivan Abadjiev, known as the Butcher. Abadjiev was tough, unforgiving, innovative and remarkably successful.

Sleymanolu did all that was asked of him, and when the two met after his defection they did so in friendship and mutual respect. Sleymanolu remained popular in Bulgaria, whose government sent representatives to his funeral.

After winning the 1989 world championships in Athens, one of his seven world titles, Sleymanolu said he had had enough. I have never been a child, he would say. I envy children; everything I remember is only training and championships. I gained gold medals, and I lost my childhood.

Sleymanolu was constantly in the newspapers, photographed in nightclubs with various girlfriends. He smoked and drank; his mother said he needed a wife. He retired from competition, but when zal told him, This country needs you, he returned in 1991 to train for the Barcelona Olympics the next year, and won again.

He made it three Olympic titles in Atlanta in 1996, holding off the challenge of his great friend and rival Valerios Leonidis, of Greece, with more world records. An attempt to win again in Sydney in 2000 failed when Sleymanolu, who had not prepared well, failed with his first three attempts and did not register a total. It was an inglorious farewell, after which he dabbled unsuccessfully in politics, held various roles for the Turkish weightlifting federation, and continued to have fun. Stories about his drinking appeared more frequently.

He did not marry, but in a 2014 interview he said he had four daughters born between 1991 and 2001. Three attended his funeral; the fourth lives in Japan. He is survived by his children and his mother.

Naim Sleymanolu, weightlifter, born 23 January 1967; died 18 November 2017

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/dec/03/naim-suleymanoglu-obituary