Excitement and anguish for European and Greek Olympic Committees leader Spyros Capralos on final day of Tokyo Games

Savors Greece’s historic water polo silver medal as wildfires blaze at home and near Ancient Olympia. International Olympic Academy saved thanks to new fire prevention technology

Spyros Capralos ran the gamut of emotions in Tokyo, with a sense of hope and excitement for Greece’s overachieving water polo team contesting gold, juxtaposed with sympathy and sadness for the people of Greece as wildfires ravage his country.

Greece NOC president Spyros Capralos (center) joins Greece's silver medal winning water polo team and coaches in Tokyo (Greece NOC)
Greece NOC president Spyros Capralos (center) joins Greece's silver medal winning water polo team and coaches in Tokyo (Greece NOC)

“You’re talking about two very opposite things – water polo victories and playing in the final is something incredible for our sports history, on the other hand, we have these devastating fires that do not let us celebrate the way we would like to because everyone is affected,” Capralos, the European and Hellenic NOC president, told Around the Rings in an interview on Sunday morning.

Greece prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the government’s priority “first and foremost, is to protect human lives” as forest fires persist. The country is experiencing its worst heat wave in more than 30 years.

Thousands have been evacuated from their homes in parts of Greece and more than 1,000 firefighters have been deployed to bring the flames under control.

“A big part outside of Athens has been in flames and the area where the Olympic Village used to be, and on the other hand, the fire also reached very close to the International Olympic Academy, to our facility in Olympia,” Capralos informed.

The sun rises behind burnt trees following a wildfire in the village of Lasdikas near ancient Olympia, Greece, August 6, 2021. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis
The sun rises behind burnt trees following a wildfire in the village of Lasdikas near ancient Olympia, Greece, August 6, 2021. REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

“Thanks to the new fire protection devices put in place, all those were financed recently by the IOC, the Academy was saved,” noted Capralos, the Hellenic Olympic Committee president since 2009.

“With this disaster happening, that was something positive that saved our Olympic culture, legacy and even more.”

On Sunday morning in Tokyo, Capralos busily prepared to attend the gold medal match between an undefeated Greece squad and Serbia, the defending Olympic champions. The afternoon affair at the Tatsumi Water Polo Center was the final event on the Tokyo 2020 program.

Having eliminated Montenegro in the quarterfinal and perennial water polo power Hungary, 9-6, in a semifinal on Friday, Greece had secured at least a silver medal, its first Olympic medal in the oldest team sport at the Games.

Capralos, who competed for Greece’s Olympic water polo team at the Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 Games, was ecstatic to be able to witness his team’s greatest, and a long-awaited, Olympic medal performance.

“I’ve been part of these water polo teams 41 years ago, and since then we were always hoping to get a medal at the Olympics, but never had the chance,” Capralos says. “Now that it happens, it’s such a magical moment for all of us.”

Greece opened the scoring just 45 seconds into the contest, on a goal by Dimitrios Skoumpakis. However, they found themselves trailing the offensively dangerous Serbians for most of the first half. With the Serbs leading 7-4, an opportunistic Greek squad exploded for three unanswered goals, knotting the game at seven with four minutes left in the second frame.

Greek flags flew inside the arena, despite the lack of fans. A late tally by Serbian Andrija Prlainovic, with just four seconds remaining in the half, sent the experienced defending champions to the break with an 8-7 advantage.

The physical affair was deadlocked at 10 with seven minutes on the clock and Greece’s chances now looking promising. However, the veteran Serbians took command, notching three highlight reel goals over the ensuing three minutes en route to a 13-10 gold medal victory.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Water Polo - Men - Gold medal match - Greece v Serbia - Tatsumi Water Polo Centre, Tokyo, Japan  –  August 8, 2021. Emmanouil Zerdevas of Greece in action REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Water Polo - Men - Gold medal match - Greece v Serbia - Tatsumi Water Polo Centre, Tokyo, Japan – August 8, 2021. Emmanouil Zerdevas of Greece in action REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Capralos said he couldn’t be prouder of the silver medal winning players and the team’s head coach Theodoros Vlachos. Greece was the youngest squad to take to the pool in Tokyo, with seven first-time Olympians.

“This team – having only lost today’s final match in the tournament – deserved the silver medal and gave happiness and pride to all of us,” Capralos told ATR.

“The feeling is something special and being congratulated by our IOC friends because they know my passion for this sport – we’re up in the clouds. If we didn’t have these bad things happening in our country, I think the whole country would be up in the clouds.”

Three-time Olympian Ioannis Fountoulis answered a question about the emotions of winning a medal in Tokyo, while the tragic wildfires are burning at home.

“You cannot compare life with sports – what we do here is play water polo, but we cannot relieve the pain that is happening in Greece,” Fountoulis said. “We just try to do our best, and of course pray that this disaster will stop, and we’ll go to normal life again.

“Here is a historic moment for us, but I don’t think it can affect what is happening in our country right now,” he said.

European athletes thrive, highs and lows for Greeks at Tokyo 2020

As the recently elected new president of the European Olympic Committees, Capralos, 66, says not only does he feel additional responsibility toward the continent’s 50 NOCs, but he has also been scouring the Tokyo 2020 results and statistics for outstanding performances.

“I’m very proud because 40 out of our 50 NOCs have medals and some like San Marino got their first medals in history,” Capralos said, on Sunday morning.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Wrestling - Freestyle - Men's 86kg - Medal Ceremony - Makuhari Messe Hall A, Chiba, Japan - August 5, 2021. Bronze medallist Myles Nazem Amine of San Marino poses with his medal. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Wrestling - Freestyle - Men's 86kg - Medal Ceremony - Makuhari Messe Hall A, Chiba, Japan - August 5, 2021. Bronze medallist Myles Nazem Amine of San Marino poses with his medal. REUTERS/Leah Millis

“Six out of the top 10 countries are European and many of our medalists from the European Games, as well as the European Youth Olympic Festivals, have now become Olympic medalists, proof that the Games have helped of the development of these athletes.

“Britain has 20 gold medals and they are fighting for first place with the Russian Olympic Committee out of Europe,” Capralos notes before the day’s action. Great Britain ended with 22 to the Russian Olympic Committee’s 20.

Capralos continued praising and highlighting nearly all of the European NOCs whose athletes performed admirably in Tokyo.

“Great performances from many European countries,” he said. “I’m very happy and proud as the European president.”

The Greek NOC boss also said the Games have been somewhat of a roller coaster ride for athletes from Greece.

“We’ve had lots of happiness and lots of pain at the same time,” he said.

“We had the first-ever gold in rowing (Stefanos Ntouskos) and the first men’s team sport getting a medal in water polo.

“We had other negative points – half of our artistic swimming team came here to Tokyo, but was not able to compete because four girls got Covid and that was really terrible.”

Capralos also highlighted Greece’s long jumper Militiadis Tentoglou, who leaped to gold on his final jump, and Greek gymnast and Rio 2016 champion Eleftherios Petrounias, the country’s flag bearer, who overcame injury to win a bronze medal on the rings.

Greece National Olympic Committee president Spyros Capralos with Greece's long jump gold medalist Miltos Tentoglou in Tokyo (Greece NOC)
Greece National Olympic Committee president Spyros Capralos with Greece's long jump gold medalist Miltos Tentoglou in Tokyo (Greece NOC)

In one touching moment, Greek pole vaulter Emmanouil Karalis, who finished fourth, honored his parents by revealing a ‘Thank you Mom and Dad” written on the back of his bib immediately after missing his third attempt.

“This guy was so happy and such a great character, he is going to be our hope for the Paris Games for sure,” he said.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's Pole Vault - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 3, 2021. Emmanouil Karalis of Greece holds up a sign after his last jump REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's Pole Vault - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 3, 2021. Emmanouil Karalis of Greece holds up a sign after his last jump REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Capralos succinctly summed up the highs and lows, triumphs and travails of athletes at the Olympic Games.

“At the Olympics, at this high level, victory to loss, success to failure, there’s so little margin between one and the other.”

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