After starting gymnastics at the age of three, Marios Georgiou is one of Cyprus’ leading lights in the sport, but THEO PANAYIDES meets an athlete for whom the sport has been the anchor in his turbulent life
I keep waiting for someone to recognise Marios Georgiou, but nobody does. This is surprising, for three reasons. First, we’re sitting in a crowded coffee-and-croissant place in his native Limassol. Second, he gets recognised in public all the time, his sporting exploits having been beamed out to a huge TV audience. And third, it’s pretty clear he’s being interviewed – I’m making notes, and holding a tape recorder – and how many teenagers get interviewed in coffee shops unless they’re some kind of celebrity? OK, he’s not strictly speaking a teenager, having turned 20 in November; still, the point stands.
There’s another reason why Marios is especially recognisable: despite sounding – and, he says, feeling – entirely Cypriot, he appears distinctly Asian, being the son of a Cypriot father and a Filipina mother. ‘Well, he doesn’t look very Cypriot!’ went some of the more graceless comments last month, when he competed with our Gymnastics team at the Commonwealth Games – though most naysayers were happy enough to accept him as ‘one of us’ when he led the charge in the island’s best showing ever, winning three medals (only Diamanto Evripidou won more): a Gold in the Men’s Floor, another Gold in the Men’s Parallel Bars and a Bronze in the Men’s Artistic All-around, the last of those being perhaps the most special since it requires consistent excellence in all six events.
You can watch a clip on YouTube of Marios’ triumph on the parallel bars, with the Australian commentators waxing euphoric (the Games took place in Gold Coast, Queensland). “He’s got a little quality about him that maybe you can’t coach too easily, and that’s a natural timing,” reckons one pundit after Marios swivels and rotates his body effortlessly, ending on a perfect handstand. “Yes definitely, that’s something you either have or you don’t have,” agrees the other, reflecting the general consensus on the young gymnast; the Beeb dubbed him ‘Super Marios’.
The man himself also agrees, in between taking sips of a caramel latte and fielding a phone call from his girlfriend (she, like him, is a half-and-half, being Russian-Cypriot; they’ve been together nearly two and a half years). Like Lady Gaga, he was born this way. He’s been doing gymnastics since the age of three, when a coach from a nearby gym visited his kindergarten, looking for likely prospects, and saw a certain three-year-old dangling from a tree branch. He looks and acts fairly ordinary, a soft-spoken kid with his hair sticking up, five-foot-six and 63 kilos. There’s a slight stammer and an easy grin, and when he tells of having once beaten up a school bully who was hassling him – knocking him to the floor when the bully wasn’t expecting it – he pauses for a nervous little chuckle every few seconds, half-proud, half-embarrassed. Yet he knows he has something special, and he knows other people know it too. “I inspire people,” he affirms without arrogance.
What’s inspiring isn’t just his talent, but the circumstances in which it’s had to flourish. More than most people, athletes need settled lives; they thrive on a strict routine, indeed they can’t do without it – yet Marios’ personal life (girlfriend aside) has been “a mess,” he admits, especially in the past few years when he’s been competing at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. ‘How did your parents meet?’ I ask at one point – but he admits he doesn’t know, or can’t remember. “About my relationship with my parents generally, I don’t have a very good relationship,” he explains hesitantly. “Basically I was kind of on my own, let’s say. I didn’t have a lot of support”.
Things were better with his late father, especially towards the end. On his right arm Marios sports a shoulder-to-wrist Maori tattoo, its lines and shapes telling the story of his life so far; one design – a kind of semi-circle filled with petals – represents the death of his dad, and the hope that he’s still somehow present. On his left wrist is another tattoo, making it even plainer: ‘Georgios Georgiou’ and a date – March 27, 2017 – which is when his father died of a heart attack at 65, after years of long unhealthy hours as a taxi driver (he’d been transferred to the front office, answering phones, in his last years, but still worked 6pm to 6am). “I’m very proud of my dad, basically, because – at the end of the day, he was the only one who stuck by me,” explains his son, albeit making clear that they had a turbulent relationship. The parents divorced when Marios was 10, and he lived with his mum for a while – at least till she took off two years ago, and he had to move in with his father. Mum had mostly left him alone (he’d have been running wild, if not for gymnastics), Dad was older and more hands-on. “It was weird for me,” he recalls, implying that they clashed often.
At the end, when his dad had been admitted to hospital after feeling dizzy and unwell, Marios was busy training and couldn’t visit, then his godfather suddenly called and told him he’d passed away. There’s a tinge of guilt in those twin tattoos, the guilt of every son who knows it’s too late to make amends for not having shown his love better. “The thing is, you’re busy,” he explains, “and you’re concentrating on the things you have to do, and there were so many times when he called me and I was – very abrupt with him. And I regret that now, because [I know] he only did it because he cared about me”.
It’s a little early for so much soul-searching. 20 isn’t old, it’s still on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, but Marios has grown up fast; in the past few years, especially, his successes have been those of an adult – his work, his romantic relationship – while the last few remains of his childhood have disintegrated. His mother used to work at the Four Seasons; when that job folded, she ran out of money – so she left the island and left him too, abandoning him to be with her other family. (Marios’ situation is complicated; he has two half-siblings in Cyprus from his father’s side, and two more abroad – in Belgium and the Philippines – from his mother.) That was two years ago, just before the Olympics. Do they ever talk nowadays, on Skype and so on? “Whatever,” he shrugs. “We say hello.”
Doesn’t he miss her? It’s good to have a parent, especially at 20.
“To be honest,” he replies, “I’ve done so many things without anyone’s help – except my dad’s – that I wouldn’t care now if… I mean yeah, I know she’s my mother and all, but…” He fidgets in his seat, trying to pin it down. “Let me put it this way. What mother would leave her son, when she knows he has a chance of going to the Olympics, and instead of supporting him she leaves him?… I feel some anger about that”. Yes, she’d lost her job, but they could’ve moved to a smaller apartment or something. “She had a choice. Just like I have a choice now. If she tells me she wants to be together again, I have a choice to say ‘Yes’ – but I’m going to say ‘No’. She’s come back to see me a couple of times, we’ve talked, but that’s it. Actually my mum said I’ve changed,” he notes thoughtfully. “I mean, I used to be so friendly with everyone. She said I’ve become a bit colder.”
The events of the past few years – his mum’s departure and his dad’s passing, coupled with his own newfound success – may have hardened Marios Georgiou. As a boy, he seems to have been very amiable (indeed, he still is; I only spot glimmers of his tougher side), maybe as a kind of defence mechanism. He looked different to the other kids. He was small in stature. He suffered from dyslexia. He had his gymnastics, the only constant in his life – but even that was a problem, since he trained for five hours each day (till 9pm) and fell asleep when he tried to do his homework. ‘What was it like at school?’ I ask – and he smiles mischievously, looking like a schoolboy again. “Uh – hmm, basically I was their favourite student,” he replies with a giggle, “because I didn’t bother anyone and every morning, second period, I’d curl up and go to sleep in class”. Teachers let him get away with it, mostly because they knew he was an athlete – but also, I suspect, because he did it so amiably. “Basically, at school, everybody loved me.”
Things aren’t quite the same now, though he struggles to put his finger on it. “Basically, I’m not so emotional now… Like, if someone talks to me about their problems, I won’t – I mean yeah, I’ll care, but I’m like ‘Okay’,” he explains with a little shrug, as if placing distance between himself and another. He’s still friendly, and happy to talk to people – but anyone who crosses him is “screwed,” he declares with a little chuckle; “Like, really badly!”. Partly it’s bravado – but also a case of a boy who’s become slightly less amiable. “This thing changes you,” admits Marios sadly, speaking of his recent travails. “It changes you.”
It also makes you a better competitor. Marios made mistakes on Day 1 of the Commonwealth Games; he slipped and fell off the pommel horse then messed up on the horizontal bar, missing out on the finals. When he returned to his hotel, he was livid with rage – but then he pulled himself together, came back stronger on Day 2, and finished up with three medals. Part of his success is surely down to the fact that he thrives on performance, which is what gymnastics is – “a show”, as he puts it. Having an audience makes him nervous, but also brings out the best in him. It’s no surprise that he’s worked as a dancer, at Guaba in Limassol (his girlfriend is also a professional dancer), and may even end up studying choreography when being a gymnast is no longer possible – though “I hope that day never comes,” he adds earnestly, “because I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself”.
His sport isn’t just a sport: it’s the anchor in his turbulent life, the one blessed constant in a shifting emotional landscape. Marios has been with the same coach since he was five years old, and has had money coming in from sponsors (mostly OPAP) and government schemes since the Olympics. With the exception of a rebel phase in his mid-teens, when he dropped out for a few months and fell in with a bad crowd – they hung out, smoked a lot and “pretended to be gangsters”; he did backflips to entertain his new friends, and felt a pang in his heart for gymnastics – he’s been doing this all his life, training every day except Sunday, eating five boiled eggs for breakfast then spending six hours (two in the morning, four in the afternoon) swivelling and balancing and exerting total control over his body.
Maybe it’s his youth, but he seems an untypical athlete. He’s a sensitive soul, unexpectedly vulnerable. He’s afraid of the sea, and can’t stay in the water for more than a few minutes. He gets nervous in front of TV cameras. He takes strength from solitude and likes to stay in the gym after everyone has gone, completely alone, till he feels his spirit settling (his ideal holiday would be a week alone, just him and his girlfriend). A sensitive soul might be thrown by the kind of unstable personal life he’s had to negotiate – but Marios Georgiou isn’t fazed, having learned how to leave his problems behind or (even better) make them work for him, acting as motivation to excel in his sport and break through to a better life. It’s the same with those who claim he’s not ‘really’ Cypriot; “the doubts”, he says – i.e. the naysayers, those who refuse to believe in him – are just grist to his mill.
And now? The obvious next step is to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 – a realistic goal, the peak age for male gymnasts (he tells me) being from 22 to 25. Even in Rio 2016, when he suffered an ankle injury and was only 18 anyway, he narrowly missed out on a couple of finals, so Tokyo could hopefully be the big one – the only catch, I suppose, being that Tokyo has to be the big one. He’ll be past his peak when 2024 rolls around so it’s probably now or never, if we’re talking Olympic medals. I guess that’s true, says Marios, sipping at his latte and shrugging with youthful nonchalance. It’s a lot of pressure, I point out. “Yeah,” he agrees, then shrugs again: “But it is what it is”. Simply put, he’s been through worse.