SI Vault
 
Wait-listed for the pantheon
Anita Verschoth
February 01, 1971
Last October, Christos Papanicolaou became the first to vault 18 feet, but it takes more than a world record to become a Greek hero
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February 01, 1971

Wait-listed For The Pantheon

Last October, Christos Papanicolaou became the first to vault 18 feet, but it takes more than a world record to become a Greek hero

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Papanicolaou began his three-hour workout with three young vaulters who strove to imitate his every move, but he always looked smoother, more stylish, whether doing handstands and flips or practicing pole plants. And he was no longer frowning. He laughed like a child at play. His good humor even inspired him to propose a rare night on the town.

He wore a well-tailored gray suit, a clinging lace shirt and a bright tie when he arrived at O Kostogianis, his favorite restaurant in Plaka, the old part of Athens, with his girl friend Iro. "Chuby, chuby, chu, Mister I love you," he was singing. Papanicolaou and Iro were joined by friends: Dimitris Constadimidis, a former teammate who once held the Greek record for 1,000 meters, and Eva and Ira, Iro's girl friends. Papanicolaou went into the kitchen to shake hands with the chefs while a waiter obtained a big table for the celebrated guest simply by sending four disgruntled customers off with their plates and glasses to a smaller one. Papanicolaou took his seat at the head of the table. "Every day, I eat steak," he said. "For lunch and dinner always steak. Tonight I'm going to eat something else." He chose a bifteck made of hashed beef spiced with garlic and a vin ros´┐Ż from the restaurant's own vineyard. Iro attentively handed him things from the table so he never had to reach. "Doesn't he look like President Nixon?" she said. Papanicolaou looked pleased.

Immediately after dinner he announced his departure. "I do not like to stay out late," he said. "Tomorrow I play volleyball at 10 a.m."

"He is very delicate," confided Iro. "He is very complicated. But he is a good boy and very simple."

Eva, Ira and Dimitris decided to go to a nightclub where Yiannis Voyiatzis, the Greek equivalent of Tom Jones, so enraptured his audience that full champagne glasses and white flowers were flung at his feet. "Yiannis sings that the Greek guys are really tough," Ira said. "They are. Christos is a typical Greek. He wants to be a real man, and he thinks to be one you have to be krrrh." Old men in business suits wobbled onto the stage and danced the sirtaki. "Christos loved to do this dance," said Dimitris, "but now he only talks about the Olympics. He wants to be a hero."

In a country where heroes are made by time, Papanicolaou's long-range single-mindedness is understandable. "We have had other heroes in Greece," says his former coach, Otto Szymiczek. "Heroes like Spiridon Loues, who won the marathon in the first Olympic Games. He really became a hero. 'Do it like Loues' is still a saying in Greece. Another hero is Demetrios Tofalos, who was a weight lifter at the 1906 Athens Olympics. 'He is like Tofalos,' the Greeks say of a strong man. The pole vault was always a popular event in Greece. In 1956 Georgios Roubanis [who studied at Occidental and UCLA] won the bronze medal. You cannot jump from the sky. You must get roots somewhere. Papanicolaou is the last link in a chain of good pole vaulters. He is very stubborn and spares no effort, but only time will show whether he has the makings of a hero."

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