Philip Barker

Greece has a special place in the Olympic Movement.

The Games of antiquity were staged in Olympia and the first of the modern era were held in Athens in 1896. It is why their team has led the parade of nations at Opening Ceremonies since 1928 and why their flag is raised during Closing Ceremonies. Yet for the past four years there has not been a Greek member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In a few days, Spyros Capralos, an Olympic water polo player at Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, will re-establish the thread. He has led the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) since 2009 and joins a distinguished lineage which can be traced back to the first IOC President and includes men of letters, diplomats, theologians, an admiral and even a king.

In 1894, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin invited the Pan Hellenic Gymnastic Society to a Congress at the Sorbonne in Paris, aimed at reviving the Olympics. They responded: "We have already asked one of our members best fitted to do so."

He was Dimitrios Vikelas, who conveniently, lived in Paris. Coubertin soon described him as one "who shared my hopes and fears".

Vikelas made a decisive speech, during which he said: "I claimed Greece’s right with the regard to the re-establishment of a Greek institution."

Athens was duly chosen as the first modern Olympic host city and Vikelas became the first IOC President.

"It was only natural that he should be elected since he was held in such general esteem," Ioannis Chrysafis, a Greek gymnastics coach, said. 

The road to staging the first modern Games was not easy, But when they were over Vikelas was able to write: "The fate of the international Games seems assured."

Greek Dimitrios Vikelas was the founding President of the IOC ©Wikipedia
Greek Dimitrios Vikelas was the founding President of the IOC ©Wikipedia

He stood down as President and left the IOC altogether in 1899. Coubertin welcomed Count Alexandros Mercati as his successor. The son of a banking family, Mercati was influential at court and as a member of the Athens Organising Committee official, he had opened many doors. He also played golf at the 1900 Olympics, finishing 11th out of 12.

As his parting shot, Vikelas had proposed an International Olympic Games in Athens at the mid-point of the Olympiad. Mercati put his efforts into Games for 1906, held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the initial revival. These were a success but never repeated.

Clearly a man with a sense of history, he also suggested that names of victors be displayed at each Olympic Stadium. This became enshrined in the Olympic Charter.

In 1925 when he stood down, Coubertin proposed a vote of thanks for "the great services rendered during this period".

Mercati remained in contact with the Olympic world. Thirteen years later, in 1938, when Coubertin's heart was interred in Ancient Olympia, Mercati spoke at the ceremony.

"I am trustee of the last wish of an old and dear friend, I have the honour to place in the hands of Greece, the urn containing his heart, the inspired reviver of the International Olympic Games, the great friend of Greece, the noble son of France," he told the invited audience. 

A postal vote had selected Georgios Averof to succeed Mercati. Averof’s uncle had bankrolled the restoration of the Panathinaiko Stadium for the 1896 Games. HOC records say the younger man "took part in the national sports life with dedication and generosity".

But when the IOC met in Amsterdam in 1928, Averof was absent "having fallen ill in Paris". In 1930, came the news that he had died.

Greek IOC member Count Alexandros Mercati 
ensured the wish of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Movement, that his heart was interred in Ancient Olympia ©Wikipedia
Greek IOC member Count Alexandros Mercati ensured the wish of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Movement, that his heart was interred in Ancient Olympia ©Wikipedia

Nikolaos Politis had been Greek envoy to the League of Nations but, although an IOC member for three years, he never attended a Session and resigned in 1933. In his place came a man who had already been a IOC member for 23 years, but for Egypt.

Angelo Bolanachi – later Bolanaki – was part of the ethnic Greek community in Alexandria. An athlete and official, he became IOC member for Egypt in 1910. He organised a sports meeting in Alexandria to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the IOC in 1914 when the Olympic flag flew for the first time.

In the 1920s, he made strenous efforts to start an African Games. These proved unsuccessful, but Egypt competed in the Olympics, although results proved disappointing. Bolonachi's own standing deteriorated. The Egyptian team stayed away from the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics because they were not permitted to nominate a member who was actually Egyptian.

"In the light of complex circumstances which seem to me to be contrary to the actual interest of Egyptian sport, I offer my resignation as IOC member for Egypt," Bolanachi wrote to the IOC.

Politis had also decided to stand down. "To respond to this wish and to keep Bolanachi as IOC member he was named as delegate in Greece," noted the IOC minutes.

After the Second World War, Ioannis Ketseas joined the IOC. As a teenager he played tennis at the 1906 Games in Athens and later led Greece's Tennis Federation and SEGAS, the Greek Athletics Federation. In 1934, at Tegea, he had been one of the group which proposed establishing an Olympic Torch Relay.

In the late 1940s, he revived the idea of an International Olympic Academy (IOA) in Ancient Olympia. Thanks largely to Ketseas and German academic Carl Diem, it opened in 1961 above the ancient site in Olympia. Since then many Greek IOC members have held the place in great affection.

HOC President Prince Constantine was certainly an enthusiastic participant. He had won an Olympic sailing gold medal at the age of only 20 at Rome in 1960 and also opened the 1961 IOC Session in Athens. Within two years, he had become an IOC member aged only 23.

This was in succession to Bolanachi, doyen of the IOC, who died in 1963 after 53 years of IOC membership. His passion for regional Games had delivered fruit in the 1950s and he joined an IOC Commission to regulate them. He had also spoken out in favour of integrating the Soviet Union.

Prince Constantine won an Olympic gold medal in sailing at the age of 20 and was an IOC member at 23 before stepping down following the abolition of the monarchy in Greece ©Getty Images
Prince Constantine won an Olympic gold medal in sailing at the age of 20 and was an IOC member at 23 before stepping down following the abolition of the monarchy in Greece ©Getty Images

One of his final acts was to deliver the original Olympic flag to Lausanne for the Olympic museum. 

Bolanachi was, said Olympic Chancellor Otto Mayer, ‘"a most faithful disciple of Coubertin".

Pyrros Lappas, a retired admiral became secretary to the IOA Trustees and joined the IOC in 1965. "A man of the sea, he still has the look of one used to scanning the horizons," said the Olympic Review. He had built the first covered swimming pool in Greece and led the Hellenic Rowing Association. "Youth must live with frugality and not look to material gains," he said. 

His arrival coincided with an era of political turmoil in Greece with a coup by the military. Lappas remained an IOC member but King Constantine eventually went into exile and resigned his IOC membership, although remains an honorary member to this day. 

The man chosen to take his place was Epaminondas Petralias, a lawyer from Patras and a champion water polo player. He was 68 when he joined the IOC described in Olympic circles as "everybody's friend and a spiritual father of numerous followers of Olympism".

Sadly, he did not live to see the IOC gather again in Athens for their 1978 Session. But his colleague Lappas welcomed his IOC colleagues. "Let us remember Olympia for the moral value it represents", he told them.

By now Greece had another new member in Professor Nikolaos Nissiotis, an Athenian theologian with an international reputation. His involvement was a reflection of the early days of the IOC when Coubertin sought the participation of distinguished academics. Nissiotis also had impressive sporting credentials, he had coached Panellinios, a powerful force in Greek basketball in the 1950s. He too, became synonymous with the IOA as its President. It was returning from Ancient Olympia in 1986 that he was killed in a car crash.

By this time, HOC general secretary Nikos Filaretos had also joined the IOC. His background was in banking. In his early years, he sat on the IOC Press Commission but also crossed swords with the 1984 Los Angeles Organising Committee over plans to allow sponsorship of their Torch Relay.

Spyros Capralos is set to become the latest Greek to carry the Torch at the IOC ©Getty Images
Spyros Capralos is set to become the latest Greek to carry the Torch at the IOC ©Getty Images

Yet behind a bullish exterior, he had tremendous affection for the Olympic Movement. In his own words he was "a militant for Olympism"’ and was a "hands on" IOA President. He headed the IOC Education Commission.

In 1986, the then HOC President Lambis Nikolaou was inducted as an IOC member. A civil engineer, he had been responsible for overseeing the original construction of the Olympic Stadium for the 1982 European Athletics Championships and sports complex in Piraeus.

He was elected to the IOC Executive Board in 2001 and was said to be close to tears when elected vice-president in 2005. It was the highest office held by any Greek since the days of Vikelas. "I am overwhelmed. I feel this honour is a reward you are giving to my country and to me." he told Greek media.

In 2015, at the age of 80, he retired to become an honorary IOC member. It was the first time that Greece had been without an IOC member in the modern era.

Now Capralos will be one of 10 new members to be sworn in with the IOC members' oath during the next Session, due to take place in Lausanne between June 24 and 26. 

"I undertake to serve the Olympic Movement to the very best of my ability, to ensure the respect of all the provisions of the Olympic Charter and the decisions of the IOC which I consider as not subject to appeal on my part to comply with the code of ethics and to keep myself free from any political or commercial influence and from any racial or religious consideration to fight against all forms of discrimination and to defend in all circumstances the interests of the IOC and those of the Olympic Movement."

As HOC President, it falls to Capralos to pass the Flame to the next host city at the Handover Ceremony in Athens.

He had also escorted Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al Hussein when he carried the Flame at the Eleonas Refugee Centre before Rio 2016. Such were the crowds, he needed all his skills from water polo. 

Now. he is set to carry a different Torch.