If you were to name the most intense weightlifting battle of all time, which would you pick? Dmitry Klokov Vs. Khadzhimurat Akkayev at the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships? Maybe Matthias Steiner Vs. Evgeny Chigishev Vs. Viktors Ščerbatihs at the Beijing Olympics? We could go on and on.
It’s hard to settle on one all-time best, but there’s a pretty good argument to be made for the jaw dropping lift-off that occurred in the -64kg weight class at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The contenders: the legendary Turkish weightlifter Naim “Pocket Hercules” Süleymanoğlu and the Greek weightlifter Valerios Leonidis.
When asked before the event if he had any rivals, Süleymanoğlu said, “Only the Greek. Only the Greek.” Leonidis had been closing in on him for years. The year before at the European Weightlifting Championships, he came second to Süleymanoğlu by just 2.5 kilograms. At the World Weightlifting Championships later that same year, the two lifted the exact same total (327.5 kilograms) — Süleymanoğlu won the gold medal solely by virtue of being lighter.
[To this day, Süleymanoğlu is one of just six people who have officially clean & jerked triple bodyweight in competition. Read the full list here!]
Theirs was perhaps the most talked about weightlifting event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and with good cause: while attempting to best one another’s clean & jerks, the men broke three world records.
We wanted to highlight this excellent, 23-minute documentary about “the historic battle for Atlanta Weightlifting gold” that’s a must-watch for any fan of the sport. (Note that you’ll be directed to watch this on YouTube after hitting play.)
At the outset, Süleymanoğlu had snatched 147.5 kilograms (325.2lb) and Leonidis 145 kilograms (319.7lb). The clean & jerk portion is where the magic happened.
Leonidis, who this time weighed slightly less than his rival, had to clean & jerk at least 2.5 kilograms more than Süleymanoğlu to take home his first Olympic gold medal. The ensuing battle was fierce to say the least.
Within just a little over five minutes, three world records were broken. Süleymanoğlu lifted 185 kilograms (407.9 pounds), two kilograms over the previous world record. The audience, which was sharply divided into Turks and Greeks, erupted into cheers on the Turkish side, as though the gold had already been secured.
But Leonidis returned to the platform to respond with a momentous 187.5 kilograms (413.4lb), yet another world record. Like boxers trading punches, Süleymanoğlu headed back to the stage and hit the same weight as Leonidis, breaking the world record total as the Greek was preparing for his final clean & jerk.
One hundred and ninety kilograms was now on the bar, ten kilograms more than Leonidis had ever lifted in his life. It looked like Süleymanoğlu couldn’t bear to watch as he headed backstage, but he reemerged in time to see that after cleaning the weight, Leonidis couldn’t rise. The barbell clanged to the floor. Tears were still streaming down the Greek’s face when it was time to claim his silver medal.
Süleymanoğlu was the first weightlifter to win three gold medals at three consecutive Olympics. His opponent never took one home for himself.
“I felt I could beat him, I felt that I could make that lift but it wasn’t written,” Leonidis said afterward. “When you compete against this man you have always to compete at world record levels.”
Announcer and former competitor Lyn Jones proclaimed at the time, “You have just witnessed the greatest weightlifting competition in history.” He may have been right.
Featured image via Jesse Malcomb on YouTube.