“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 the Spiros Louis Panhellenic record at the Greek Marathon. Even though he was born in Cyprus in 1910, he was invited to represent Greece in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and he did. He also represented Greece in the 1948 London Olympics.
However, the great Greek runner became famous 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 plights of post-war Greece.
“I came to run for seven million hungry Greeks,” were his words upon his arrival in the United States. And he was – and looked – very hungry and unhealthy himself. So much that the doctors asked him to sign a statement before he ran that he would be the one responsible if something happened to him.
This was Kyriakides’ second attempt at the Boston Marathon. He ran in 1938 as well, after an invitation by U.S. fellow runner John Kelley whom he had met at the Berlin Olympics. However, the brand new shoes Kyriakides wore in Boston hurt his feet and he was unable to make a good run.
Kyriakides fought against the Nazis as member of the Greek Resistance during the German Occupation. After the war, which left Greece devastated and poor, he travelled to America not only to run, but also tell people of Greece’s suffering.
As Stelios Kyriakides later said, while he was running in Boston – on April 20, 1946 – Greek expatriates and journalists cheered him on, shouting: “For Greece my Stelios, for your children.”
The Greek athlete finished the Marathon in 2:29:27, a European record, and for almost 23 years, a Greek record, putting him in the Guinness Book of Records.
On May 3 of that year, the Greek runner was invited to the White House by U.S. President Harry Truman.
Although he was asked to stay in the United States, he said that he was there only to help Greece. Within one month he raised $250,000, while the Livanos shipowners family sent two ships with emergency supplies. Because of the publicity, the U.S. government also contributed an extraordinary $400,000 financial aid package to Greece.
When he returned to Greece on May 23, about one million Greeks welcomed him with the honors of a national hero.
“I’m proud to be Hellene,” he declared tearfully.
The Acropolis was lit up for the occasion, and the walk of the people to his house in the Filothei suburb lasted eight hours.
Two years later he ran in the London Olympics and finished in 18th place. He died in Athens in 1987.
The City of Boston has honored the Greek runner with a sculpture of Kyriakides called “The Spirit of the Marathon”, which was unveiled in 2004. It depicts Spiros Louis showing the way to Stylianos Kyriakides.