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
February 01, 1971

Dick Railsback, a Californian who is one of the best U.S. pole vaulters, telephoned Christos Papanicolaou in Athens the other day. "Congratulations on your world record," he said and proceeded to invite Papanicolaou to Los Angeles to train with him for two months. Pole vaulting is no longer the exclusive province of such flamboyant Americans as John Pennel and Bob Seagren. Indeed, in 1970 the event was dominated by less dazzling, more single-minded Europeans like Wolfgang Nordwig of East Germany, Renato Dionisi of Italy, François Tracanelli of France and Papanicolaou. If Railsback wanted a world-class training partner, he was obliged to seek him overseas.

Although the winter months are chilly and damp in Athens, Papanicolaou could not be tempted to leave for California. Sitting in his small modern apartment a few days after Railsback called, he said with some vehemence, "I lead a regulated life. I cannot interrupt my schedule. Besides, I have injured my hand and need to visit a therapeutic specialist on Cyprus." He held up his left hand, which, since he is a left-handed vaulter, is his push-off hand, and pointed to a slight swelling around the knuckle of his forefinger. "I want to compete in America in February," he said, "and I must be in top shape for that."

Papanicolaou had just come home from the University of Athens, where he is a phys ed instructor, and was resting before his afternoon workout. He sat behind a desk facing two tall glass cases filled with silver trophies, medals and a Parker pen embedded in a silk-lined box. On the wall at his back were a pair of landscapes painted by his mother and the certificate he received for his fourth-place vault (17'6¾")—behind Seagren, Claus Schiprowski and Nordwig—at the Mexico City Olympics. His feet rested on a shaggy rug made in Trikala, 220 miles northwest of Athens, where he was born 29 years ago and where his forebears had been priests.

"In Greek papa means priest," he explained. "My father's grandfather was Papa Nikolas. Later the name was changed to Papanicolaou." His father used to teach literature in high school; now retired, he sings in a church choir.

Papanicolaou took up vaulting during his senior year in high school. "One day the teacher asked me to vault just for the point, since the other team had a vaulter," he recalled. "I did 10 feet and liked it." He put up a bar between his home and the factory behind it and cut a branch for a pole. "One day I vaulted 12 feet," he said blithely.

Although he soon switched to fiberglass poles, his progress was unexceptional. Six years afterward, at the Tokyo Olympics, he only cleared 14'5¼", which got him 18th place. The following year he met George Dales, then the track coach at Western Michigan, who was visiting Greece. The outcome was that Papanicolaou got a three-month scholarship. "It was very difficult for me," he said. "I spoke very little English and I didn't have any friends in Kalamazoo." However, he was determined to continue his education in the U.S.; you need a foreign degree to teach phys ed at Athens U.

In 1966, at the pre-Olympic games in Mexico City, Papanicolaou had another fortuitous meeting, this one with Bud Winter, at the time the track coach at San Jose State. As a result Papanicolaou spent three years at San Jose getting his degree. "I learned to have a goal in America," he said. "It was to break the world record, and I knew it would happen. I dreamed about it the night before I did it." Last season Papanicolaou selected five meets at which he would try to break the record (17'11") and top 18 feet. At the last, a dual meet between Athens and Belgrade held in Karaiskakis Stadium near Piraeus on Oct. 24, he made his dream come true just as dusk was falling. The bar was at 5.49 meters (18'¼") and Papanicolaou, who had cleared 16'6" and 17'1" on his earlier attempts just as he had dreamed he would, waited at the end of the blue Tartan runway for the noise of an airplane to fade away. "Usually I mind the noise," he said, "but this time it didn't bother me. I had confidence. I took off and I noticed that I was over the bar when I flipped the pole. I looked at the people. Everything seemed to have stopped for me at that moment. Then I landed in the pit. I was screaming."

Only 6,000 people witnessed the record vault. However, since that October evening it seems to Papanicolaou that he has been introduced to at least twice as many. He has been the guest of honor at innumerable receptions and banquets; he has been awarded medals; his bust, in marble, will be erected in Trikala; newspapers have reported his engagement to a certain beauty, despite the fact that he has said he would not think of marrying until he won a gold medal in Munich.

At 4 p.m. Papanicolaou drove his burgundy Alfa Romeo Giulia 1300 to Karaiskakis Stadium, where he trains. Frowning, chewing gum, he tooled through the heavy traffic of modern downtown Athens, past the remaining columns of the Olympieion and the side roads that lead to the Acropolis. "All we have in Greece is an old story," he said. "We should build something like that today. But I like living in Greece. I like it quiet. There are no demonstrations here. And the people are friendlier than the people in the U.S. Here they care about you. In the U.S. everybody is working so hard. I don't like to work from morning till night. I like to live comfortably, and life in Greece is more comfortable if you have some money. I want to become a commercial representative for American companies. I am comfortable now, but I want more. I want a house in the mountains near Athens and the ocean." A Jaguar sedan passed and Papanicolaou pointed at it. "I want that car," he exclaimed. "But the latest model. I like to buy things."

At Karaiskakis Stadium, Papanicolaou nodded to Mihaly Igloi, the Hungarian who left California last summer to coach Greece's long-distance runners. "He never misses his training," said Igloi who, if possible, is even more of an egotist than Papanicolaou. "He works very hard. Only my boys train harder."

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 rosé 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."

PHOTO PHOTOWITH THE HELP OF A TEAMMATE, PAPANICOLAOU CLIMBS KARAISKAKIS STADIUM STEPS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)