Philip Barker

Sixty years ago this week, they lined the streets of Athens to welcome home the only Greek Olympic champion at the Rome Olympics as he rode through the city in an open-top Rolls Royce.

His face was already well known throughout Greece, for the champion in question was Crown Prince Constantine.

His Olympic sailing victory added to an already distinguished family history in the Olympic world. His grandfather had been head of the Organising Committee when the Games were revived for the modern era in 1896.

The young Crown Prince had been introduced to the Olympic world for the first time when he was installed as President of the Hellenic Olympic Committee in 1955. At the time he was only 15 years old.

It was a time when there was widespread criticism of Greek performances at the Olympics.

Greece had not won a gold in Olympic sport since the 1912 Games and the team manager’s reports complained that "athletes were not ready spiritually and mentally which is of great importance to their physical preparation."

Prince Constantine had already begun to take part in sport. He took up riding, tennis, judo and karate. Inspired by his father’s interest, he had sailed purely for pleasure. Soon he won the Greek national championships in the "Lightning" class.

Rome 1960 Olympic champion Prince Constantine departs an aircraft ©Philip Barker
Rome 1960 Olympic champion Prince Constantine departs an aircraft ©Philip Barker

It was clear that he had the potential for even greater things and told insidethegames: "I took up sailing seriously about a year prior to the 1960 Olympic Games. I had participated in the Lightning class in the Greek Championships, which I was fortunate enough to win. It was then suggested to me to switch to a Dragon, as I preferred a keelboat, and to take my sailing seriously."

He had already experienced the sharp end of press scrutiny.

"It was always obvious to the press that if I won a race it was only because I was Crown Prince."

One man with impeccable sailing credentials was on hand to offer advice. Danish sailor Paul Elvstrøm set a standard later emulated by Sir Ben Ainslie with four consecutive Olympic gold medals.

Elvstrøm was also generous with his help to other sailors and acted as a mentor for the Prince.

"Paul Elvstrøm’s contribution was vital. He had gained so much experience over the years, which he passed on to me. He trained me for six months before the Olympic Games, during which time he suggested that I participate in as many international regattas as possible to gain experience." 

The Prince followed the advice of his teacher, often taking to the water at the crack of dawn for practice. He raced as much as possible to win selection for the Games.

"I recall a particular piece of his advice: that I should always 'stop the boat from dancing', ie to keep the boat steady, neither too high nor too low in the wind."

A second-place finish at the Kiel regatta gave a hint of what might be possible at the Games.

Constantine’s sister Princess Sophia was also part of the squad and was chosen as reserve for the Olympic team.

As the Rome Olympics drew ever closer, the Flame was lit in Ancient Olympia and carried across the Mediterranean by the Amerigo Vespucci, a tall-masted sailing ship.

Constantine met the Olympic Torch at Piraeus at the end of its journey across Greece.

"I remember very well handing over the flame to the Captain of the Italian training ship which would take the flame on to Italy," he said.

There was a further distinction to come when the Games opened on a scorching Roman afternoon. As tradition dictated, the Greek team entered first in the parade of athletes. In 1960, their blue and white flag was carried by the Prince.

The sailing competition held in the Bay of Naples began four days later.

Crowds greet the victorious Prince Constantine in Greece ©Philip Barker
Crowds greet the victorious Prince Constantine in Greece ©Philip Barker

Constantine said: "I wanted to represent Greece to the very best of my ability. My father, King Paul, had said to me that if I finished in sixth place or above, it would be considered a victory both for my country as well as myself."

Twenty-seven crews took part in the Dragon events at the Olympic regatta. Constantine sailed with a crew of Odysseus Eskitzoglou and Georgios Zaimis in a boat called Nirefs.

"To be representing my country felt completely different from sailing for my own pleasure. My focus was my country and the Greek people, so I did feel more pressure, but this just served to concentrate my efforts and dedication yet further."

In the first of the seven races, matters did not go well. He confessed to nerves and after more than three hours racing, the Canadian crew crossed the line first and the Greek team almost twelve minutes behind. The Prince was even summoned by the jury of appeal but his boat was not disqualified. They stood 10th, with plenty of work still to do.

The second race was much closer and the Greek boat placed third. At a stroke the Greeks had moved up to fourth in the overall leaderboard. The race was won by the Argentinian boat Tango helmed by 1959 Pan American champion Jorge Alberto Salas. Italy’s Antonio Cosentino, a Neapolitan competing in his third Olympics on board Venilia, proved to be the other contender.

The Greek crew maintained their position with another third place in race three and then in the fourth came a turning point. A superb performance gave them a win and elevated them into medal contention.

At this point came the rest days. When racing resumed the Greeks maintained their good form.

The Greeks maintained position and the, in race six, chased the Norwegian boat all the way. Crucially, the Italians were back in 14th and the Argentinian boat suffered a disqualification.

The points accrued meant the Greek crew were now in gold-medal position with only one race to go.

Constantine recalled: "It was only on the last day that I became aware of this. In sailing, one might do quite well one day, and have a disastrous result the next day, so I tried hard not to be complacent, and to stay absolutely focused until the very end of the final race."

There was no complacency. In the final race, the Greek boat came home in fourth but that was enough for the gold medal. Some years later he recalled the sensation he felt for students at the International Olympic Academy in Ancient Olympia.

A stamp commemorating the Greek victory ©Hellenic Post
A stamp commemorating the Greek victory ©Hellenic Post

"I found that winning the gold medal was the greatest sensation I have ever felt in my life apart from the time I got engaged."

Prince or not, he could not escape the traditional dunking. Later he was congratulated by Elvstrøm who had won gold in the Finn class .

In a lavish souvenir book produced to commemorate the Games, the sailing reporter Darwin Zivarello noted that "Constantine has made notable progress to the point of that today he can be considered among the best helmsmen of the moment."

The Greek post office issued a special stamp showing the Prince and the winning boat.

He did not forget his sister Sophia who had not made it onto the water and so did not qualify for a medal. "She had worked as hard as anyone," the Prince said.

He presented her with some jewelry made in the shape of the Olympic rings. By a twist of fate Sophia’s future husband, King Juan Carlos of Spain, also sailed in the Olympics at the 1972 Games.

Constantine remained active in the sport but destiny beckoned before the Olympic Flame burned in Tokyo. He had become a member of the International Olympic Committee and then acceded to the Greek throne in 1964. He remains the last monarch to hold an Olympic gold medal.

His reign proved short-lived. Exile followed a military coup in 1967 and the Greek monarchy was subsequently replaced by a republic.

His connection with sailing remained strong, first as a vice-president and later as International Sailing Federation President of Honour.