This was a difficult blog to write. It’s about real people and real consequences.
The death on 18 November at 50 of the great Turkish weightlifter, Naim Süleymanoğlu, will inevitably raise the question of whether his acute and eventually fatal cirrhosis of the liver had its origins in the use of performance enhancing drugs. The same questions were asked when the similarly great sprinter, Florence Griffith Joyner died in 1998 aged 38. Let us say at the outset, neither athlete failed drug tests. But their greatest performances came in era where doping control had major shortcomings (some say nothing much has changed). When Bulgaria pulled its weightlifting team out of the Seoul Olympiad after a second positive drug test by a Bulgarian medallist, it did not escape notice that Süleymanoğlu, a native Bulgarian (Naum Shalamanov) was part of the Bulgarian programme.
Performance enhancing drugs are linked to many early deaths in elite sport. And now we are witnessing an emerging body of evidence linking repeated concussion and early onset of dementia.
Performance enhancing drugs and concussion seem a long way apart. This blog is about better coaching and I make no apology for stretching the connection. In the cases of Süleymanoğlu, Griffiths and the many NFL and possibly rugby players who may suffer an early death, other adults, the entourage, were complicit in athletes making decisions that would eventually affect their life expectancy.
This is no rush to judgement of the athlete. Süleymanoğlu was and remains a hero in Turkey and an inspiration to weightlifters the world over. Griffiths Joyner, who stunned the 200m field in Seoul with a 21.34 world record, inspired a generation of young African American women. And nor am I minimising doping. Dopers we say, once found out, have feet of clay and are the cheats. But who were the coaches who failed these athletes? Did they stand strong in the face of the pressure on their athletes to dope? Did they immediately pull the concussed footballer from the field and rigorously apply concussion protocols until bruised brains had healed?
We are not just responsible for the physical, mental, technical and tactical preparation of the athlete in the abstract. Real decisions have real consequences. There’s an argument that says only when the entourage is held to account will sport’s moral compass shift. The attention is now on international coaches. But what about those coaches earlier in the athlete’s career – did they do all they could to protect their athletes – help them make the right decision? Or, in the end, was the athlete coached to death?
In 1992, world weightlifting drew a line under 30 men’s world records and started again with new weight divisions. At that time, Bulgaria had 13 records, the Soviet Union 11, Turkey 3 (Süleymanoğlu), China 2 and Romania 1.
Naim Süleymanoğlu (b. 23 January 1967, d. 18 November 2017) height 1.47m, lifted in the 59-64kg class. PRs - snatch 152.5kg, clean & jerk 190kg, total 342.5kg (all in 1988 at the Seoul Olympiad)
(photo sources: Getty images and pulse.ng)