ISTANBUL (AFP) - Hundreds of mourners including his greatest sporting rival attended the funeral of Turkey's triple Olympic champion Naim Suleymanoglu on Sunday (Nov 19). Known as the 'Pocket Hercules' Suleymangolu, who won three straight Olympic weightlifting titles starting at the Seoul Games, died from liver failure last Saturday (Nov 18) aged 50.
His great rival and Greek Olympic silver medallist Valerios Leonidis was among the mourners, kissing the coffin as he passed by.
"I was so upset to hear of Naim's death. I have lost a great friend and the world has lost a great athlete, I can hardly believe he's dead," Leonidis told the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
Turkish sports minister Osman Askin Bak compared Suleymanoglu to some of today's sports stars.
"In the same way we evoke (Lionel) Messi, (Cristiano) Ronaldo or (Michel) Platini in football, in weightlifting, we think of the doyen, the master, the 'Pocket Hercules' Naim Suleymanoglu," he said.
Suleymanoglu's exploits made him a national hero - he is regarded as one of the greatest sports personalities in the country's history.
Born in and originally competing for Bulgaria, he defected from the then-communist country in 1986, leaving a competition in Australia for London aboard the Turkish prime minister's jet, and receiving a hero's welcome when he subsequently arrived in Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had visited Suleymanoglu in hospital, expressed his condolences on live television.
Suleymanoglu is the only weightlifter to win gold medals at three different Olympic Games.
He was granted the Olympic Order by then IOC (International Olympic Committee) president Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001.
His exploits in 1988 made him one of the stars of the Games and Time magazine put him on the cover of its Games issue with one arm aloft in triumph under the headline: "Everybody Wins".