In over 20 years as a hack, I have been fortunate to have talked to and interviewed a variety of people – from politicians such as Nelson Mandela to actors like Harvey Keitel and Stephen Berkoff; from poets like Michael Longley to athletes such as Pele and Usain Bolt. But I have never interviewed a king. At least not until recently.
All right, so King Constantine is technically not a king any more although there is something just a touch Monty Pythonish about calling him an ex-king.
But that is what he is. Crowned in 1964, he fled from Greece to exile in Rome in 1968 after a botched attempt to launch a counter-coup against the military junta that had taken over the country the year before.
When democracy was restored in 1974 the people of Greece – many of whom held Constantine largely responsible for the rise of the vicious regime of the Colonels in the first place – voted to end the monarchy and become a republic.
Since then he has lived in London. Don’t feel too sorry for him. He is not sweeping the roads or living off benefits. A home in Hampstead and an office in Grosvenor Square around 100 metres from the Greek Embassy in Upper Brook Street.
In January, I travelled to Grosvenor Square to interview him about the gold medal he won for sailing at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome when he was a dashing young crown prince, just 20 years old.
With the low winter sun, Grosvenor Square looked a picture so long as you stood with your back to the US Embassy which runs along one of the short ends. It is brieze-block ugly with imposing black gates running around the perimeter; protection against the bombers they say. How it was ever allowed to be built in such a lovely London square is anyone’s guess.
As I waited in the lobby for the summons. I gave my notes one last glance and realised I was slightly nervous. This is not normal for me but it had more to do with not quite knowing the royal (or ex-royal) protocol.
When I had first contacted his office, I had asked for an interview with Constantine. It had been returned to me with a polite note asking if I could rewrite the request referring to the ex-King as His Majesty. Having done so, it was passed on to him.
In my subsequent correspondence with his PA, I had asked about royal protocol but received no specific guidance. Should I collapse on bended knee and grovel before his regal self? Doff a forelock? Kiss his ring? (or is that only popes?). Do I call him Sir, Your Majesty, Your Ex-Majesty? Kyrios?
I had also wondered what I should wear, in the end going for the Greek formality of black suit and no tie. I was intending to wear a crisp white shirt but having arrived in London the night before, I discovered rather disconcertingly earlier that morning that said shirt was still hanging in my cupboard at home. So, it was a thin black fleece. Not perfect but given Greek fashion, not totally out of place for a shaggy, middle-aged-trying-to-be-hip hack.
By the time I was given the nod to proceed to the second floor, these thoughts had drifted away on a headwind of sailing and military coups.
After five minutes of waiting, I was called through to meet the king. Protocol looked after itself as he reached out a hand and we shook firmly, looking into each other’s eye. I was relieved to find that he wasn’t sporting a crown, nor even a suit. Just a decent pair of trousers, a jacket and open shirt.
“Would you like a coffee?” he asked.
“I would love one, thank you.”
“How do you take it?”
“White with no sugar please – unless of course there is any chance of a frappé – in which case I will have it metreo me gala.”
Frappé is a cold coffee invented and much loved in Greece – perhaps because it is the best way they could find of using condensed milk in coffee in the days when fresh milk was something of a luxury. I always liked mine with the milk and a touch of sugar.
“These are Greek words…,” he said letting the sentence drift.
Sadly, it wasn’t possible to rustle up a frappé – but the point had been made (and acknowledged) that I knew a little bit about Greece and its culture.
It was an easy interview in the sense that he had plenty to say and didn’t object to my interruptions, sometimes to clarify a point or to expand on a point.
Occasionally he went off on tangents and these I allowed for as long as I thought was relevant and polite before bringing him back to the subject in hand.
The ease with which he qualified for the Games and then prepared might raise an eyebrow or two these days.
In brief, he decided on the spur that he thought “it might be fun” to go to the Olympics so decided to train in equestrian. His father, King Paul, soon put a stop to that.
“The king sent for me and said: ‘what are you doing?’ I said I was training for the Olympics. ‘Not on a bloody horse, you’re not. I only have one son. Go and get yourself married and have some sons and change sport. Do you really want to go to the Olympics? Then try sailing.’”
And so he did. He won a place in the one boat – a Flying Dutchman – that was going to the Games but then the Navy bought two Dragon class boats for the cadets to use. He effectively commandeered one and pulled in a couple of naval officers, Odysseas Eskitzoglou and Giorgos Zaimis, to crew for him. He was 20 at the time.
And so they qualified for the Games simply because it was the only Greek Dragon to enter.
In terms of preparation, he went for the very best, summoning the legendary Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom to come to Naples for a trial event and help him learn.
“He turned up in Naples and I asked him what he wanted to do, whether he fancied some sightseeing. ‘Sailing,’ he replied.
“He nearly drove me crazy in the boat. But he taught me to concentrate from the gun right through to the line and not to watch any of the other boats but to focus on every single wave. I didn’t know where any of the others were. We passed the first mark 300 metres in front of the second boat and finished third out of 40 or 50. I was quite pleased.”
But the Dane soon burst his bubble of content.
“At the end he turned to me and said: ‘you realise you are a lousy sailor’. But we came in third, I said. ‘That’s because I told you what to do.’ What do you suggest? ‘Six to eight hours every day in the boat until the Games.’
“I said, ‘I can’t do that, I have too much else going on. Try telling the king that’.
“So that is what he did. Elvstrom was very direct. He said the same thing to my father who was a very calm and wise man and knew a bit about sailing. He asked me if I wanted to do it and when I said I did, he said OK.”
Elvstrom, incidentally, really is a legend in the sailing world. He competed in eight Olympics, the first in 1948, the last at the age of 60 in 1988, winning four gold medals on the way.
“The Games themselves were wonderful,” says Constantine. “I had to make all the decisions on what kind of schedule I should keep and, well, I was a bad boy. I arrived three weeks in advance and the nightclubs were very appealing. I would get up at lunchtime, sail in the afternoon and then go to the nightclubs all night.
“One week before the sailing began, I gave up the cigarettes, the alcohol and the nightclubs. Then I set myself a curfew. Into bed at eight o’clock every night and into the water early. We worked hard and peaked for the Games.
“At the tiller, I found my concentration was wonderful, able to steer over every wave.
“At the opening ceremony, I had the honour of carrying the Greek flag. It was an amazing experience to go first through the long tunnel where there was a little water fountain where I drank with the Afghan flag bearer. And into the stadium in front of the Italian people… I was chatting with the Afghan quite happily until someone else came along and took the flag away from him. It was the Afghan Minister of Sport who decided he should carry it.
“When they let the doves go, one of them let loose right on top of the minister; the whole Afghan team and Greek team were roaring with laughter.”
Greece’s Olympic standing by 1960 was pretty low. Gone were the glory days of the 1896 Games when Spiros Louis ran himself and the Marathon into sporting history.
Greece had achieved just one medal since 1920 – and that was a bronze for Giorgos Roubanis in the pole vault in 1956.
“I was delighted for Roubanis but it never occurred to me that I might be at the Olympics. There was no television, just radio so people didn’t give it too much thought.”
The last gold medal was 48 years earlier, back in 1912, when Konstantinos Tsiklitiras triumphed in the standing jump.
But the omens were good in Naples with conditions not unlike those close to Athens.
“We were lucky because Naples was very similar to Faliro; the same waves, the same reaction to the wind. It wasn’t an alien environment.”
The first race, though, had been poor as he completely messed up the start.
“I was ready for the perfect start; the nerves were jangling but in that excited way, we were in a good position but we were there a minute early so we had to go round again and that left us a lot to do. We made the first mark in ninth and finished ninth but I realised that we had good speed.”
Constantine’s optimism was almost sunk by a protest from Japan but he came through the inquiry by one vote – and things began to improve. In the next eight races they weren’t out of the top four, winning once. It left them in pole position for the gold medal going into the final race.
Constantine, though, got an unwelcome reminder of the near half-century that Greece had had to wait for a gold medal.
“The night before the final race, I was walking on the quay and a journalist shouted across that the last gold medal was 50 years before and, basically, don’t mess it up. It affected me instantly, I was overwhelmed by this weight of expectation. I went below for a cigarette. I needed a good hour to collect myself.
“If the Italian crew had won that race and we had finished out of the top three, then they would have won the gold medal. So, we just had to follow him and stop him from getting too far away.”
The Greek boat did finish outside the top three, in fourth, but the Italians were unable to win the race and had to settle for bronze with Argentina nipping in to take the silver.
“I didn’t really understand the noise when we finished. Every boat was hooting; my parents and my sister were cheering… there was champagne but I can’t stand champagne.
“The medal ceremony is still very vivid. It was given to us by the President of Italy (Giovanni Gronchi)…up on the podium, the national anthem…it was a feeling second to none – except getting engaged.
“There was so much excitement in Greece. My father received the crew and myself, we laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, driving up Sygrou Avenue it seemed like there were millions of people.”
Elvstrom, incidentally, Constantine’s mentor, made history in Rome by winning a fourth successive gold medal, this time in the Finn class.
There was a touch of disappointment, though, for Constantine’s sister Sofia who was the substitute for the Dragon and Star class. She didn’t get a race and missed out on a medal.
“I made a little bracelet for her after the Games, in the same shape as the medal.”
Two years little she married a young Spanish prince called Juan Carlos and in 1975 became Queen of Spain.
He didn’t know it at the time but Constantine’s Olympic career was over – at least as a participant.
Sadly his gold medal is no longer in circulation.
“It disappeared when we left, when the Colonels moved into the Athens palace. Maybe it is still there somewhere.”
A QUESTION OF PERCEPTION
I had been allotted half an hour for the interview. By the time we got to the end of the Olympics, I had been there for over an hour. And still he wasn’t finished as he began to talk about maybe writing a book one day.
“You should definitely do it,” I said. “I am afraid you have a problem of perception in Greece. When I told some of my friends that I was coming to interview you, some were very happy, others were less kind. You should tell your story, the whole truth and nothing but.”
He paused and looked at me. I wasn’t sure he would be happy to hear this but, hell I had my interview down, I might as well tell him as it is.
“Perception,” he mused. “Yes, the Greek people do not know me. They have never heard me. I have never been allowed to speak to them. Just once on television…”
We chatted cosily about the current problems of Greece. He didn’t seem too keen to leap back into the hotseat although there was undoubtedly an undercurrent of regret that he was no longer the megali tyri – or ‘big cheese’ as they say in Grosvenor Square.
Before we finished he insisted on showing me the family paintings. The one of his grandfather King Constantine commanding troops during the Battle of Ioannina in the Balkan War, another of his grandfather at a counsel of war.
“You see this fellow here, leaning over the table, that is Prince Andrew, Constantine’s brother…the father of Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh….oh and this one over here is our house in Corfu, that is where Philip was born….and this is my boat which won the gold medal….”
For a moment he was lost in reverie, surrounded by history of which he was a part. History as in past tense, rather than present or future. That must be difficult for a man to come to terms with. Sure, you can do all the jollies of the International Olympic Committee or the International Sailing Federation but these are fripperies when set alongside the loss of a crown.
“Just one other thing,” I asked him. “I am not sure about the protocol on this so please don’t take any offence…but I was wondering if I could ask you to sign a couple of books for me.”
“Of course,” he said. “In Greek or English? Or both?”
After an hour and 40 minutes, we shook hands once again, this time in farewell.
I had my interview in the notebook. And I was chuffed that he had not only signed my book of the Ancient Olympics – which has also been autographed by Ed Moses, Michael Johnson and Ioannis Melissanidis, gold medallists all – but he had also scratched his name across the title page of my edition of Herodotus’ The Histories.
It seems fitting to have it signed by the last king of the Greeks.
Constantine was born June 2, 1940 and died January 10, 2023
©Barney Spender 2012