In the series Our First Medal, Xander Chevallier talks to athletes who have won their country’s first ever Olympic medal. He digs into the challenges they faced, the issues they overcame and the reaction when they did finally make the podium. We ask: how much harder is it to win an Olympic medal when you have no footsteps to follow and the expectation of a nation on your shoulders?
Very few events get given a long segment on the evening news. An election or the death of a major world leader might see Huw Edwards give up 20 minutes of his programme. A half an hour slot would be almost unimaginable.
But for sailor Pavlos Kontides, on the day he won Cyprus’ first ever Olympic medal, this is exactly what happened.
For Kontides, sailing was in his blood. His father was also a sailor and Pavlos tried to get started when he was just six. “Once I was old enough to get in a boat aged nine, I just loved it.”
Due to Kontides’ size, he struggled in the Optimist boat which is designed for children under 45kg to learn the sport. At the age of 12, he was already 67kg, so he moved up to the Laser class earlier than most, and the results soon followed.
As this stage sailing was still a fun hobby that he excelled at. But when Kontides was 14, and attended the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he started dreaming about taking things further.
“Attending those Games really lit a fire in me. I went to the sailing in Athens and I was in awe of how the fans were cheering and how important it was that everyone was representing their country. It was then that I realised I wanted to do that.
“After those Olympics, things got pretty serious. I moved into the national squad and trained like a professional even though I was still at school.
“A lot of times I’d wake up at 5am, go to school, get home and go for a sail and then finish with another gym session. It was tough at times, especially seeing my friends have a lot more of a social life, but I knew I had a different purpose in life.”
Three years later Kontides won his first Youth World Championship, thus qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He wasn’t expected to medal and so adopted an outsider’s tactic of planning for strong winds, which didn’t pay off – he finished 13th.
Beijing had come just too soon, but in the subsequent years he won two World Cup silver medals and a European Championships bronze.
In 2011, he qualified for London and finished fifth in the test event, leaving him optimistic of his chances a year later.
“I knew it was going to be tough and I was just 22 years old. That might sound very young for a sailor, but since I was at the international level already [for] a number of years I had decent experience for my age. We trained really hard and we [were] well prepared.”
The biggest potential challenge was the pressure Kontides felt from those watching back home in Cyprus. Ahead of Beijing, the country expected shooter Georgios Achilleos to bring home a medal. Achilleos was the world number one for the two years before the Games.
However he didn’t get off to the best start and only managed to finish fifth.
Kontides also got off to a poor start in 2012, finishing ninth and fourth in the first two races, but he didn’t repeat the mistakes of Achilleos.
“Thankfully doubt didn’t creep in. I was very disconnected, I had my phone switched off, no social media, no communication with back home.”
His results drastically improved, winning both races on day two and consistently finishing in the top four which all but guaranteed a second place finish with one race left. At this point, the magnitude of what he was about to achieve really hit Kontides.
“There were emotions ahead of that race. It was a fortunate position to be at, ensuring a first medal for my country and my dream, my goal to be on that podium was almost accomplished.
“When I finished the competition and switched my phone on, it was only then I realised what was going on back home. The reaction when I did get back to Cyprus was amazing. It still gives me goosebumps now.”
When the plane arrived back from London, it was greeted on the runway by two fire engines which used water from their hoses to make an arc over the plane. This was just the warm up for the scenes that were about to come.
“Once I got past luggage and security, there was maybe like 4,000 people waiting for me. They were everywhere, screaming my name. Media everywhere, live cameras everywhere, live on TV and for a couple of days it was just intense like that.”
The crowds didn’t stop there. Another couple of thousand greeted him at his boyhood Limassol Nautical Club and he also had visits to the Presidential Palace and Cypriot Parliament.
Kontides had the honour of carrying the Cypriot flag at the 2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony. “The pride was enormous. The thousands of people cheering was so insane and it’s definitely something I wish to every athlete. Some people say it can be unlucky, but everyone who gets offered should take the honour, it’s a moment they will never regret.”
Whether it was a bad omen or tempting of fate, Kontides finished seventh. Understandably, he was disappointed but said: “Rio taught me a lot of things and some of my best results came after the Games. I won back-to-back World Championships in 2017 and 2018, and in 2018 won the Rolex World Sailor of the Year which is something that I was very emotional about.”
This award is the Ballon D’Or of the sailing world. It applies to anything with a sail, not just the Olympic classifications but everything from offshore racing all the way through to the Americas Cup. In 2018, Kontides was voted the best out of all of them.
Even in such a decorated career, the thing that Kontides is most proud of is the effect his medal had on the future athletes coming through in Cyprus.
“There’s an uptake in participation in lots of sports, especially the individual ones. I think people definitely have more belief in themselves to now know that it’s possible.
“You don’t need to be scared about the bigger nations because they’ve seen that even if you’re from a small country and tradition is against you, that you can go and have a good result.”
Kontides had been building towards Tokyo, and was ranked number one in the world before the Games were postponed. It would be understandable if he’d been angry about the dates being moved and how this could jeopardise his shot at winning gold, but his focus has not wavered.
“My purpose now every day is to give my best at training and try to improve and be at the top of my game. You can only give 100% and if I do that, regardless of the result, I’ll be a very happy man.”