Kontides first Cypriot to win Olympic medal
Sailing star eying gold at 2016 Rio Games
As a child, Pavlos Kontides was always drawn to the waters around his birthplace of Limassol, Cyprus.
His father took him to join the local sailing club aged just six, but he was deemed too young to sail until he was nine. Once he was accepted, however, there was no taming his nautical curiosity.
The ocean’s sparkling allure has since grown into a life’s obsession for the 26-year-old international sailing star – and one that’s been thoroughly rewarding.
“My relationship with the sea is unique I would say. It’s an affair” Kontides tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.
“From a young age (I was) always attracted to it. It’s just something that always calms me and I love being next to it,” he adds.
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus remains a bitterly divided place after it was partitioned between a Turkish-Cypriot north and Greek-Cypriot south in 1974.
But Kontides’ courtship with the waves around his homeland has seen him earn national hero status.
He became the first Cypriot to win an Olympic medal when claiming silver in the men’s Laser Class sailing event at the 2012 London Games.
“That was the point of my life that was amazing,” he says. “I was preparing my whole youth for that moment.”
“We have such a small country … less than a million population so winning that first ever Olympic medal shows that it’s not about numbers. We are so small but we have big heart.”
Kontides was mobbed upon returning home from London. The Cyprus Airways jet transporting him was showered with a victory arch from the hoses of the local fire brigade.
Crowds of fans and well-wishers also gathered at the arrivals hall to greet him with offers of flowers and an olive leaf garland crown.
For Kontides, who once faced the possibility of having to give up the sport he loved because of a back injury early in his career, the adulation was thoroughly satisfying if not a little unnerving at first.
“I became a hero, I am still a hero and people now recognize me,” he says.
“My friends and family still treat me in the same way. But people, strangers, people around they will recognize me and that makes me feel special,” Kontides beams.
“In the beginning it was a bit weird when I came back, but on the end it’s something that you need to have to show people appreciate what you did. It makes you feel happy.”
Like ‘cycling and playing chess’
The sweet taste of success and fame has only intensified Kontides love for the life aquatic.
He began to study ship science at the UK’s University of Southampton but his intense training regime has seen him spend most of his time in Cyprus.
Kontides describes the intricacies and physical demands of sailing as like “cycling at a high heart rate up the hill and at the same time playing chess.”
Events last for days at a time ensuring deep reserves of concentration and mental strength are required. The Laser Class – which refers to the type of boat used in competition – at the London Olympics took place over 10 days.
“That, I think, is the biggest physical challenge you can have and mental at the same time. This is what is unique about sailing, it doesn’t just test your physical strength, but also your mental and it’s all related together.”
“You need to be able to control your mind, not allow any external thoughts to influence you and spend energy on them.
“If you are leading for two or three days and you fall in the trap of going onto social media or opening the newspapers online you will find out what you are achieving is pretty huge and extra pressure will come to you.”
Aiming for gold
Naturally, the forthcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are the current focus of Kontides’ attentions – although he maintains long-term ambitions of appearing in the America’s Cup. “Any (medal) would make me happy but I am aiming for that gold,” he says.
However, the anticipation is tempered by caution. Kontides admits that health and safety concerns surrounding the Rio Olympic course have also been at the back of his mind.
In February last year, local newspaper, O Globo, obtained footage of a boat crashing into trash floating in the Guanabara Bay venue which will host all Olympic sailing competitions.
Rio de Janeiro mayor, Eduardo Paes, also reportedly admitted to Brazilian sports channel SporTV last September that Guanabara will remain mostly polluted for the duration of the Olympics.
“If you have lots of rain then the favelas are flooded and all the rubbish comes into the sea where we are sailing,” Kontides says. “These are the physical materials you can see but (also) you have a lot of viruses you cannot see.”
Yet putting too fine a point on these matters is not something Kontides wants to waste valuable mental energy on.
“I think everybody is a bit concerned,” he continues. “But going to Olympic Games you have to make sure that nothing can stop your dream. It’s every four years and you have to be ready in all aspects so this is another aspect that we have to be ready and fighting.”
A second Olympic medal would offer a welcome fillip for Cyprus which has experienced its fair share of hardship in recent years.
The country was forced to accept a 10 billion Euro ($11.1 billion) European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout in 2013 to stave off the collapse of its ailing financial sector. Unemployment had soared as high as 15.6% by the end of 2015, according to figures from Eurostat, as the country tried to put itself back on its feet. In 2008, unemployment was just 3.5%.
Then there’s the continuing partition of the island despite recent signs of rapprochement between the President of Cyprus and Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci.
The United Nations has been pushing the possibility of a unified, federal Cyprus.
Kontides strongly identifies as a Greek Cypriot and describes being told stories by his mother and grandmother of the fighting that saw the island divided in 1974.
He says his mother was born in what is now Turkish Cyprus but was forced to move by the conflict.
Kontides remains skeptical that there will be any political solution to the decades-old dispute despite the apparent recent progress.
“Every year politicians they are trying to solve the famous Cypriot problem but now it’s so many years passed and I am not so sure what will happen,” he says.
Perhaps more likely is a first Cypriot gold medal at the Rio Olympics.