Cyprus Mail
Guest Columnist

Lessons from two great Cypriots

Stelios Kyriakides winning the Boston marathon

By Constantinos Christofides

The potential of a nation is determined by the potential of its education, and thus by the potential of its universities.

Numerous Cypriots have defined the fate, the course and the history of our country. Two of them who can be viewed as inspirational models for us all will be mentioned today. Those unwilling to take risks and strive for individuality are doomed to having to compromise with mediocrity.

I will talk to you about two great Cypriots, an athlete and a political intellectual. These two men have in common passionate and selfless love for their homeland.

I will start with a great figure of Greek sports, the hero of an era, Stelios Kyriakides.

Stelios was born into a poor family living in a humble farm house in the mountain village of Statos near Paphos on January 15, 1910. He was the youngest of the five children of Yiannis and Eleni Kyriakides. He left school aged 14 to help his family and it was completely by chance that he got involved with sports.

In the 1932 Pancyprian Games, Kyriakides won four races in two days: the 1,500, 5,000, 10,000 metres and half-marathon. It was obvious that Cyprus was too small for his talents. Therefore, he went to Greece and soon became a member of the Greek national track and field team. His star shone brightly during the 1934 Balkan Games in Zagreb, where he broke the record held by the 1896 Olympic winner Spyros Louis, thus setting a new European record.

He was 24, and Greece started talking about him as a world-class runner.

He competed for Greece in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, finishing 11th. This is where he also made an important acquaintance, which defined the rest of his life. He met another marathon runner, Johnny Kelley, who invited him to run in the world-famous Boston Marathon.

In 1938, Kyriakides went to Boston where he was welcomed by the whole Greek community. He was in top shape but was eventually let down by the brand-new pair of sports shoes the Greeks of Boston had given him for the race. You should never wear new shoes for a marathon.

Adam Adamantos

Kyriakides quit with bleeding feet in the middle of the race to the great disappointment of the Greeks waiting for him at the finish line. In an interview with sports editor Jerry Nason before he left Boston he promised that one day he would return to win the Boston Marathon.

In 1939 World War II broke out and the Nazis occupied Athens in 1941. Greece was ravaged by poverty and starvation. Death lurked in every corner of Athens and the eyes of the starving children moved Stelios Kyriakides profoundly. Occupied Athens was soon transformed into a big graveyard; people were executed daily and the death toll from starvation reached 250,000 during the first winter of the occupation.

In 1946, with the civil war raging, Kyriakides decided to run the Boston Marathon again, this time spurred on by the prospect of collecting aid for his suffering homeland. He was now 36, under-fed, weakened by years of deprivation and had not trained for six years.

With help from Greek expats he arrived in the United States in April 1946.

“I have come to run for Greece,” he declared on his arrival.

He underwent medical tests – his gaunt body and troubled face reflecting the suffering of a whole nation. The doctors forbade him to run, fearing that he might die during the race. A Greek-American by the name of George Dimitrakopoulos intervened and told the doctors that Greece would take the responsibility if anything happened.

And so Kyriakides ran, overtaking his friend Johnny Kelley in the last mile. As he crossed the finish line first, he shouted, “For Greece!” with all his might. He won the marathon in 2:29:27, a world record in 1946.

The man who had lived in the shadow of death for six years broke the national record by 16 minutes.

When US President Harry Truman asked Kelley how he had lost the race to a skinny, frail Greek, Kelley said: “How could I ever beat such an athlete? I was running for myself, he was running for a whole country, for seven million hungry Greeks.”

But Kyriakides’ great victory was not completed at the finish line. Capitalising on his subsequent fame, Kyriakides started a huge campaign to garner aid for the Greek people: food, medicine, clothing, money. All Greek-Americans embraced this effort and Kyriakides collected supplies that needed two ships to be transported to Greece. The aid saved thousands of lives.

In May 1946, despite the ongoing civil war, Greece welcomed Kyriakides back, hailing him as a national hero. Over one million people lined the streets of Athens to greet him.

Stelios passed away on December 10, 1987. Today, we are reminded of his great victory by a sculpture depicting Spyros Louis showing Kyriakides the way to victory; the original is in Marathon and there is a copy in Boston.

You might be wondering why I made this reference to Stelios Kyriakides’ struggle. It’s because his resolve, his indomitable spirit in the face of endless adversity, his persistence, his certainty that he could distinguish himself, his lion-heartedness are traits that should inspire every young person as they attempt to walk a unique path.

The talent and dedication shown by Stelios, as well as his enormous spiritual strength and discipline, is what led him to success. It is this magic combination graduates must discover in themselves to succeed.

Another true patriot, whom I have admired ever since my teenage years, is Adam Adamantos, a political intellectual, a scholar of Homer but also of Modern Greek literature and a prolific writer. A man who truly loved our country and dared to turn his back on the hackneyed slogans of his time.

Adamantos was born in Dherynia in September 1904. He was the first elected mayor of Famagusta after the October 1931 popular revolt against British rule. In the ten years he was mayor, from 1943 to 1953, he transformed Famagusta into a modern city. His most distinctive characteristic was his consensual spirit, an example of which was the social housing he built not only in the Greek Cypriot part of the city but also in the so-called Turkish quarter.

Insightful and a political realist, he did not hesitate to express his view that Cypriots should seek self-government rather than union with Greece.

He was among the very few politicians who dared to defend his beliefs with fervour, regardless of cost. He realised that a free Cyprus was only possible through the peaceful and harmonious cooperation of all communities.

Adamantos always put his love for the homeland above the political party he served. In other words, he dared to do the obvious and self-evident, unlike most ‘professional’ politicians of today, who still find this inconceivable.

Very early on he realised that peaceful co-existence required equal treatment, away from bigotry, self-centeredness and any kind of racial or religious exclusion.

Adamantos lost the elections of May 1953, probably because he was far too different for his times.

Adamantos’ words of wisdom went unheeded but were recollected during the accursed days of the Turkish invasion and occupation. We recall these words every day, as for more than 43 years we have been living with the consequences of our mistakes, our recklessness, our political immaturity, and our inability to understand the international politics of the time.

The most lasting lesson learnt by those who knew Adamantos, or had the opportunity to study his life and work, was his way of life, the honesty he showed as a member of the Left, as a politician, but, above all, as an active citizen serving his country.

Consensual and conciliatory, he was called the ‘diamond of the Left’. He strongly held on to his belief in self-determination until the end. But for this reason, he became a scapegoat. He was labelled an enemy of the people and was brutally derided. He was also accused of being an accomplice of the English colonial rulers. They even attempted to present him as a traitor.

Nevertheless, the political isolation he experienced did not make him change his beliefs. The hostility he was shown by his comrades must have hurt him, but his conscience obliged him to take a stand on what he believed to be in the best interest of his homeland.

When, at the age of 49, he finished his term as mayor, he wanted to return to education. All doors were closed to him in Famagusta and in 1954 he was hired by the Morphou Teaching College. In 1958, the college moved to the Pedagogical Academy in Nicosia and so did Adamantos. On April 15, 1959 he passed away at the age of 55 after collapsing in the classroom while teaching.

He was buried in his beloved city, Famagusta. A simple inscription can be found on his gravestone: ‘How wonderful humans are, when they are real humans.’

A small street in Dherynia has been named after him. It is the only public recognition of the contribution made by this charismatic man. In contrast to Kyriakides, Adamantos did not have a strong an impact on collective memory.

However, today we need people like Adamantos more than ever. We need them as shining examples of people that put their love of country above everything else – above their ambitions, personal gain and popularity.

Nicos Kazantzakis once wrote that there are no ideas, there are only people who carry ideas, and these grow as tall as the persons carrying them.

We must rebuild our country as a debt to the memory of people like Adam Adamantos and Stelios Kyriakides.

Be courageous and faithful to your beliefs, just as Adam Adamantos was, even if the cost is high. Ignore populism and all merchants of false hope. Try to discern who really cares for the next generations and not just the next elections.

Be stubborn and focused on what you have chosen to do, just like Stelios Kyriakides.

These great Cypriots invite us to be daring, to never give up at the first obstacle. They also remind us that it is worth sacrificing ourselves for the principles and ideals that transcend our egos and our personal interests.

This is an abridged version of the speech given by the Rector of the University of Cyprus, Professor Constantinos Christofides, at Tuesday’s graduation ceremony

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