“My son Stelios, you should always run, because we Greeks were born to run. This is how we managed to live for so many centuries.”
These were the words of Spiros Louis, the first modern Olympic Marathon winner to his “successor,” Stylianos (Stelios) Kyriakides.
Indeed, Stelios Kyriakides beat Spiros Louis’ Panhellenic record at the Greek Marathon. Although he was born in Cyprus in 1910, Kyriakides was invited to represent Greece in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and he did. He also represented Greece twelve years later, in the 1948 London Olympics.
However, the great Greek runner became most renowned for being the first non-U.S. athlete to win the Boston Marathon in 1946; with his victory he raised awareness and money for the plight of post-war Greece.
“I came to run for seven million hungry Greeks,” were Kyriakides’ words upon his arrival in the United States. And he was – and looked – very hungry and unhealthy himself.
So much so that race doctors asked him to sign a statement before he ran that he would be solely responsible if something happened to him.
The 1946 race was Kyriakides’ second attempt at the Boston Marathon. He had run in 1938 as well, after an invitation by U.S. runner John Kelley, whom he had met at the Berlin Olympics. However, the brand-new shoes Kyriakides wore in Boston that year hurt his feet so much that he was unable to get quite the result that he’d hoped to achieve.
Kyriakides had fought against the Nazis as a member of the Greek Resistance during the German Occupation. After the war, which left Greece devastated and impoverished, he traveled to America not only to run, but also tell people about Greece’s suffering.
Kyriakides later said that, while he was running in Boston, on April 20, 1946, Greek expatriates and journalists there cheered him on, shouting: “For Greece, my Stelios, for your children!”
The Greek athlete finished the marathon in 2:29:27, setting a new European record, and for almost 23 years, a Greek record, earning an entry into the Guinness Book of Records.
On May 3rd of that year, the Greek runner was also invited to the White House by U.S. President Harry Truman.
Although Kyriakides was invited to stay in the United States, he declined, saying that he was there only to help Greece. Within one month, he had raised $250,000, while the Livanos shipowning family sent two ships with emergency supplies back to the country.
As a result of Kyriakides’ successful publicity, the U.S. government also contributed an extraordinary $400,000 financial aid package to Greece.
When the record-setting runner returned to Greece on May 23, one million Greeks welcomed him with the honors of a national hero.
“I’m proud to be Hellene,” Kyriakides declared tearfully.
The Acropolis was lit up for the occasion, and there was an eight-hour-long procession to the runner’s house in the Filothei suburb of Athens.
Two years later, Kyriakides ran in the London Olympics and finished in 18th place. The great runner, who had fought the Nazis and then put his entire heart into the greatest race of his life just one year later, died in Athens in 1987.
The city of Boston honored the Greek runner with a sculpture of Kyriakides called “The Spirit of the Marathon,” which was unveiled in 2004. The evocative statue depicts the first modern Olympic marathon runner Spiros Louis showing the way to Stylianos Kyriakides.