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Volume 40, Number 2March/April 1989

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The Olympics

Honor Enough

Written and photographed by Brian Clark

The important thing in the Olympic Games," said Baron Pierre de Coubertin - the man mainly responsible for reviving them - "is not to win, but to take part." And although this ideal was somewhat overshadowed at the Seoul Games last fall by fierce competition, national pride and even scandal, it still holds true for some.

"As wonderful as it is to win a medal," said Abdullah al-Deini, chief of mission for the Saudi Arabian National Olympic Committee in Seoul, "what we really came here for was to participate."

Arab athletes, in fact, competed in every one of the diverse Olympic events. And although the 1988 summer Olympics were the most competitive ever, with some 9500 athletes vying for about 200 medals, they did score some successes. As in 1984, it was Morocco that had the best results. In addition to Morocco's two track medals (See Aramco World, November-December 1988), Morocco's Abdel Achik took a bronze in the boxing's 57-kilogram (125-pound) division. Achik nearly made it into the gold-medal round, but broke a small bone in his hand in a semi-final fight with Italy's Giovanni Parisi, who went on to take the gold medal.

Other Middle Eastern medal winners included Bahrain's Adel Darraj, who took a bronze in the taekwondo flyweight division; Jordan's Samer Kamal, who tied for bronze in the taekwondo featherweight, and Egypt's Hussein Amar, who brought home the taekwondo middleweight division silver medal.

A strong Turkish showing resulted in a total of four medals, with three coming in taekwondo. Perhaps the brightest Middle-Eastern star was Turkey's 59-kilogram (130-pound) Nairn Süleymanoğlu, who set six world weight-lifting records and won a gold medal for his adopted country. Known as "the pocket Hercules," he defected from Bulgaria more than two years ago after he was forced to adopt a Christian name by government decree. (See box, page 38.)

The Lebanese Olympic squad got to the Games thanks to a Saudi assist. Impressed by the athletes' dedication - some swimmers had to drive daily through sandbagged checkpoints in Beirut's urban battlefield just to get to a pool to train - Saudi Arabia paid Lebanon's 22 athletes' way to Seoul.

With many of his country's training facilities destroyed by the 13-year-old civil war and few coaches available, Lebanese Olympic Committee Secretary General Abdel Raouf Qaysi said he was grateful that his strife-torn land continues to be able to field a team. Lebanon has failed to do so only once in the past 40 years.

"I think it is important for us to be here. Athletes are the best ambassadors. They can help give Lebanon a positive image and bring back the international community's faith in us," Qaysi said.

In terms of medal production, the Seoul Olympiad was a big step in the right direction for Saudi Arabia.

Ibrahim Jafar, a 22-year-old Saudi, earned a bronze medal in the demonstration sport of taekwondo - the first ever for a Saudi athlete - while many of the 13 additional sportsmen who took part made good showings. Weighing in at 63 kilograms (139 pounds), Jafar won his medal in the featherweight division of this Korean martial art, tying with Jordan's Samer Kamal. (See box, page 36.) Other Saudi athletes competed in archery, shooting and track-and-field events.

"It was a great job Ibrahim Jafar did. And I think as taekwondo becomes more popular back home, we may be fortunate enough to see additional medals in this sport," said a smiling al-Deini.

Al-Deini was speaking at his Olympic Village headquarters during the second week of the Games last fall. Outside his apartment hung a huge, green Saudi Arabian flag. In the same complex of high-rise buildings, a long Moroccan banner waved in the breeze, and in a nearby outdoor reception area where athletes from around the world mingled freely - often trading national pins - flags of the 160 countries competing in the 24th Olympics snapped in a brisker wind.

Al-Deini summed up the Olympic experience this way: "Certainly medals are important, and they bring international recognition, but the goal of the Games is to promote peace through sports, and that is one of the main reasons we are here.

"It means a lot to have any athletes here, competing on this level with the world's greatest sports figures. Many of our competitors improved their own records. It would have been hard to do better.

"Sports are my major concern," said al-Deini, a former sprinter turned track-and-field coach, "and I think they are important for our young people. They teach them discipline and many other things that are crucial in their overall lives. That is why we have built some of the best facilities in the world in Saudi Arabia. We have a multi-use stadium in Riyadh, for example, that has an excellent design for track and field, football [soccer], basketball and other sports. And each club often has its own facilities. This all will help us be ready for Barcelona in 1992." Smiling, al-Deini added, "We would like very much to have the soccer team there, as well!"

Yousif al-Dossari, a 25-year-old Aramco heavy-equipment mechanic who competed in the 400-meter and 110-meter hurdles in Seoul, agreed that his sights are now set on Barcelona.

Though al-Dossari was knocked out of competition in the preliminary rounds, he called his first Olympic experience "a very good thing. And if I practice hard, I think I can make it to Spain and do better." In the meantime, al-Dossari said, in addition to his own training, he will coach, run clinics and talk to younger Saudi athletes to "inspire them to do well at the local, national and international levels."

Hadi al-Qahtani, a 23-year-old Saudi library-studies major who ran the 400- and 800-meter races, said that - in spite of his disqualification in the 800-meters for changing lanes too soon - "it has been a real pleasure to be here and see all these athletes and simply take part.

"I'm not going to get my head down. Now, I think we have a responsibility to take back our experience and help with rising athletes, because young people will look up to us."

Both young men said they had been inspired earlier in their track careers by Morocco's Said Aouita, whose 5000-meter gold medal in Los Angeles encouraged a whole generation of Arab athletes.

Oman had pinned its medal hopes on Mohammed Amer Rashid Malky a 400-meter specialist who broke the 45-second barrier in a race in Hungary last August. Malky made it to the finals, where he finished well, though considerably behind Steven Lewis, Butch Reynolds and Danny Lewis of the United States, who went one-two-three in the event.

Competing in only its second Olympics, the Sultanate of Oman was pleased to field a 13-man squad in track, boxing and shooting, Oman's minister of education and youth said.

"Sport plays an important role in the building and development of societies. It sharpens not only the body, but the mind and is an instrument meant to achieve self-refinement and self-control so vital to excel in life. It also acts as a social link to unite people and nations. We're proud to be members of the Olympic movement," he said.

Fatima Aouam, a 28-year-old Moroccan who made it to the finals of the women's 1500-meter competition, said that she, too, would work with runners coming up through the ranks to help her kingdom to extend its medal-winning string to three Olympics in Barcelona. Like a number of athletes from Africa and the Middle East - including a number of Saudis - Aouam had trained at Said Aouita's running school in Morocco.

For Ben Sliman Mounir, an official with the Tunisian volleyball team, the Seoul Games were a tune-up not for Spain, four years down the road, but for the Arab Volleyball Championships set for Saudi Arabia in November.

Arriving as African champions, Tunisia nonetheless found the going extremely tough in Korea and Mounir called the shutout defeats to the United States and Italy "a disappointment."

But he was philosophical about the team's losses. "Not everyone can win. Someone always has to lose," he said. Then, in words that could apply to all the Arab countries' participation in the Seoul Olympics, he added, "We gained by playing here and on this level of competition. We would have liked to have done better, naturally, but we think we represented ourselves well with our play and with our sportsmanship. That is most important in any contest."

Brian Clark is a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee who has covered three Olympics for Aramco World.

Arthur Clark is an Aramco staff writer in Dhahran.

The Kick’s Inside
Written and photographed by Arthur Clark

Back in 1982, when many of his contemporaries were racing to the soccer field to play Saudi Arabia's number one sport, 16-year old Ibrahim Jafar was in the training room at his club on the edge of the Arabian Gulf engaging in a more exotic athletic pursuit: taekwondo, the Korena form of karate.

In the six years up to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, he practiced thousands of hours. He earned his black belt, second degree - the second grade of achievement in the highest level of the sport - and he was a consistent winner in Saudi Arabia in the 58-to-64-kilogram (128-to-141-pound) intermediate weight class.

In February of last year, Jafar took the bronze medal in the Arab taekwondo championships in Cairo. Then, last September, Jafar brought home an even bigger prize: He won a bronze in the demonstration taekwondo competition in Seoul, giving Saudi Arabia its first medal ever in any class of sport in the Olympics.

"When the judge first raised my hand [to signify I had won a bronze medal], I was jumping with joy," Jafar said in an interview at the al-Taraji Club in his oasis hometown of Qatif on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. "Then I hugged my teammates, and then the team coach.

"Afterwards, I went immediately and called my home. My family was very, very happy."

Because of the time difference between South Korea and Saudi Arabia, a second call to his club went unanswered. But club members - including the 47-member taekwondo team and its Korean coach, Jeon Moon-Beum - had followed events and were soon celebrating too.

Jafar also quickly received congratulations from Prince Faysal ibn Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, the head of Saudi Arabia's Presidency of Youth Welfare, which oversees the Kingdom's sports programs among other responsibilities. And the young man received an award from the prince in honor of his accomplishment.

Jafar and four other men were selected by the Saudi Olympic Committee in the spring of 1988 to represent Saudi Arabia in the 25-country taekwondo demonstration competition. They were chosen on their records in the sport.

"My ambition is to achieve one of the top three places [in Seoul]," Jafar told the Saudi press in September. Of the Kingdom's 14-man Olympic team, he was the sole medal winner.

The Saudis expected tough competition from strong, experienced squads from Turkey, Spain, West Germany, Mexico and South Korea. And they got it.

Jafar defeated British and Japanese opponents before being outscored by the Korean who went on to win the gold. Cengiz Yağiz, a Turk, won the silver medal. 

Competitors were initially matched by a blind drawing. "Unfortunately, I played against a Korean [in the third round]," Jafar said. "Taekwondo is their own game and he wanted to win in his own country, and he was quick to take advantage of any opportunity I gave him."

To succeed in taekwondo, "you must be fast, precise and strong - the three have to be there at the same time" Jafar told Aramco World .

"But you have to think, too. This is most important. You have to take advantage of any mistakes by your opponent. I fight with my mind. I don't fight with my body."

But it would be a foolhardy opponent who watched only Jafar's head. That was evident in a demonstration at the al-Taraji Club, where the athlete used lightning-fast moves to land blow after blow with his feet on his coach's thickly mitted hand.

To prepare for competition in Seoul, the Saudi upped his six-day-a-week training schedule from two hours to five hours a day, including a half-hour run. In Seoul, beginning a week before his first match, Jajar secluded himself for several hours every day to concentrate "on all the moves I was going to make."

In his congratulations to Jafar, telexed from Riyadh, Prince Faysal both thanked the athlete for representing the Kingdom so well and wished him success in future competitions. The Prince's expressions "encourage me to play better" said Jafar, who already had his sights set on the taekwondo competition in the World Games in Cairo in February. The next Asian Games, where taekwondo is an official sport, are in Beijing in 1990 and, of course, the next Summer Olympics are set for Barcelona in 1992.

Both Jafar and his al-Taraji Club coach said they hoped taekwondo would be recognized as a full-fledged Olympic sport by that time. Signs are good, they said, since taekwondo is popular in Spain.

In the meantime, the success of a "hometown boy" at Seoul has boosted al-Taraji Club membership, especially among youngsters, and swollen the ranks of taekwondo trainees.

"New kids are joining," said Add al-Jishi, club treasurer. "In the past, we had to go out and enroll youngsters. Now we find they come here to enroll."

Coach Jeon Moon-Beum is pleased as well. Within "two or three days" of Jafar's medal-winning performance in Seoul, he said, some 15 youths between the ages of nine and 13 from Qatif and its surrounding villages had joined the taekwondo program.

Jeon said Jafar also showed youngsters the value of practice. "Without practice, no medal," he said.

If Jafar's Olympic performance inspired young people in Saudi Arabia last fall, the Olympics themselves brightened the eyes of the Kingdom's top performer.

The quadrennial extravaganza allowed athletes from around the world to mingle. "I saw Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson" Jafar said. And he met at least one of the Arab world's greats, the Moroccan runner Said Aouita. "He didn't know me," said Jafar, "but I knew him, and we talked about the Games."

Winning More Than Medals

The diminutive, muscular Nairn Süleymanoğlu had two goals at the 24th Olympics. One was to lift a greater weight than any other man his size had ever lifted. The second was to wipe from the record books a name he despised - that of one Naum Shalamanov.

That was Süleymanoğlu's own name before 1986, when, as an ethnic Turk and a Muslim, he fled Bulgaria for his new home in Turkey. "Shalamanov" was a Christian name that Bulgarian law - which also forbids the country's 20-percent Turkish minority to speak Turkish or practice Islam - had assigned him.

"A person should have only one name. I defected because they were trying to take away my real name" he said. Now a Turkish citizen, however, Süleymanoğlu has one name and one nickname in his adopted homeland: He is called "the pocket Hercules."

The eyes of the sporting world - and of his extended family, still in Bulgaria - were on the 59-kilogram (130-pound) miner's son when he stepped into the weightlifting gymnasium in Seoul's Olympic Park on September 20. Hundreds of Turkish fans, whipping their red-and-whitc flags through the air, screamed, shouted and cried as their national sporting hero beat his former Bulgarian teammates and gave Turkey its first gold medal in 20 years and its first Olympic gold medal ever in weightlifting.

On the way to the medal, Süleymanoğlu also set no fewer than six world records.

Before he began lifting in Seoul, he was already the only man to lift three times his own body weight in tivo divisions - 56 and 60 kilograms (123 and 132 pounds). Again and again on September 20, he kept adding weight to the bar, then struggling to steady himself under it, until he had set a new world record. Then he did it again. He did it in the snatch - a lift that must be completed in one motion - and the clean-and-jerk. In the process, he set and reset world records for total weight.

At the end of the night, competing in the 60-kilogram (132-pound) division, he was holding over his head an incredible 190 kilos (419 pounds) - more than three times his own weight - in the clean-and-jerk. He had already snatched 152 kilos (335 pounds) for a grand total of 342.5 kilograms, or 755 pounds.

His record in the snatch had been 150 kilos (330 pounds), set earlier in 1988. His record in the clean-and-jerk had been 188 kilos (414 pounds), set in 1986, as Shalamanov.

Standing only 151 centimeters tall (4' 11"), Süleymanoğlu dominated the event. His first lift of 145 kilos (320 pounds) would have won the snatch. Stefan Topourov, who was to win the silver medal - a former teammate on the Bulgarian squad — had just lifted 137 kilos (302 pounds) with his third and final effort. The bronze medalist, Ye Huanming of China, had stopped at 127 kilos (281 pounds).

Süleymanoğlu wasn't done, though. He returned to set the world record with a lift of 150 kilos (330 pounds) and then came back out to do it again, lifting 152 kilos (335 pounds).

In the clean-and-jerk, Topourov lifted 165 kilograms, or 364 pounds, assuring himself of the silver medal. Süleymanoğlu then lifted 175 kilos - 385 pounds. Topourov matched the weight, but staggered as he lifted it.

Then the weight was increased to 188.5 kilograms (415.5 pounds) so that Süleymanoğlu of Turkey could break the record set by Shalamanov of Bulgaria shortly before his defection in 1986. As he succeeded, the crowd went wild.

But Süleymanoğlu still had the last of his three attempts left. He increased the world record in the clean-and-jerk for the 60-kilogram class to 190 kilograms (419 pounds), setting a new world record for total lifts in the category: an amazing 342.5 kilograms, or 755 pounds.

A few days later, Nairn Süleymanoğlu flew home to Turkey in the prime minister's official plane. His triumph on the winners' stand at Seoul had made him a national hero. Now, he said, he hoped to trade his victory and the worldwide celebrity it had brought him for something even more precious: He hoped to arrange for his parents, his brothers and their families to join him in Turkey. The next month, as the Bulgarian government bowed to public opinion, they did.

This article appeared on pages 34-40 of the March/April 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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