01 February, 2015

The flying steeplechaser

Back when I started writing this blog I knew that one day I was going to write about one of my personal heroes, Giorgos Papavasileiou, the flying steeplechaser. The main difficulty was how does one write about a champion of the 50s and early 60s, just from memory with practically no data. Well, the internet is a magical place. I started looking around and I found out, to my greatest amazement, that a biographical book did exist on Mr. Papavasileiou. The announcement gave the phone number of the author and without delay I did contact him. After a most friendly discussion over phone we fixed an appointment for my next travel to Greece. We met and I discovered that Costas Tsagkarakis (the book’s author) was roughly my age, an athletics fan and a personal admirer of Giorgos Papavasileiou. In fact, since we were both not missing any competition at the Panathinaikon Stadion, we must have been, on many occasions, seated next to each other, at the best possible place in order to watch Mr. Papavasileiou fly over the water without wetting his feet.

The cover of the book on G. Papavasileiou

Giorgos Papavasileiou started his athletic career in Thessaloniki in 1950 and the next year he moved to Athens. In his first participation at a 3000 m steeple race he managed to win a bronze medal at the national championships. Member of the national team in 1953 he broke his first national record over his preferred distance. During his military service he participated several times at the CISM championships winning not only the steeple race (twice) but also the 5000 m once. In 1955 he was first over 3000 m at the Mediterranean Games and broke the greek records in the other two races he participated to, the 1500 and the 5000 m. The same year he won for the first time the Balkan title over 3000 m steeple: he would go on to win the same title for 7 consecutive years. In 1956 he broke the Balkan record of 3000 m steeple with 8:56.00. He participated at the Melbourne Olympic Games where, with 8:56.60 he was classified 13th among 23 participants. In 1958 he participated at the European championships, where he won his semi-final. Unfortunately in the final he was pushed and fell and so managed only an 8th place albeit with a national record of 8:51.20. He won again the Mediterranean title in 1959. 

The superb style of G. Papavasileiou

Preparing for the 1960 Olympic Games he broke more than once the national record of the steeple race bringing it to 8:45.80. But at the Olympics he got doubly unlucky. Arriving to Rome he caught cold and was not feeling well but, what is more important, the Italian organisers had arbitrarily decided to limit the number of athletes in the final to just 9. Thus Papavasileiou, having obtained the 10th position was eliminated. He had reached the apex of his career and at 30 years of age he continued running for a few years but without the previous success. Following an injury he decided to end his carreer in 1964. It was a career rich in results: 18 national titles, 7 Balkan titles, 2 Mediterranean titles and 3 military championships (CISM) titles. He broke 16 times a national record, 12 of which over his preferred discipline, in the span of 8 years. 

After quiting competition he did not abandon athletics.  Already in 1966 he joined the national coaches’ team and held over the years various administrative positions in the national federation. I had the chance to meet Mr. Papavasileiou in person thanks to Costas Tsagkarakis. Believe it or not, at 85 years of age (and looking a good 20 years younger) he is spending every afternoon at the Olympic Stadium in the north suburbs of Athens training young athletes. We met there, on more than one occasions, and I had the opportunity to discuss with him and ask several technical questions.

A photo from 2014 with from left to right, the blog's author
G. Papavasileiou and C, Tsagkarakis (the book's author)

A question that was mentioned in one of the previous blog posts was what was his opinion on a possible 5000 m steeplechase race. It turned that he was in favour of such a race, which, to his eyes, would be even more interesting than the current, 3000 m, one. But the question that I was burning to ask, for years, is the one concerning the hurdle and water jump style of some Kenyan champions. Here is a photo of Kipruto, a sub-8 min, steeplechaser: clearly this is an unacceptable style (I could go into a technical analysis here but let us leave it at that).

The bizarre (to say the least) style of Kipruto

G. Papavasileiou, a specialist of 400 m hurdles as well, a distance he was customarily running at interclub competitions, insists on the importance of good style and in particular on passing over the hurdle without stepping on it. But where he answered in a peremptory style was the water jump. The style favoured by some Kenyans to take the water jump without contact with the barrier is counter-productive. According to Mr. Papavasileiou accelerating before and taking a big jump over the water is one of the best ways to change one’s rhythm and launch an attack in the race. I totally agree with this assessment. The only problem is that most steeplechasers do not have the unique talent of G. Papavasileiou who was flying over the water. 

G. Papavasileiou flying over the water

I have started this post on a personal chord and I would like to finish it in the same spirit. Sometimes when you meet somebody you only admired at a distance you may be disappointed as the private persona does nor match the public one. In the case of Giorgos Papavasileiou it was the exact opposite that happened. I knew about the champion but then, first thanks to the book of Costas Tsagkarakis and then by direct contact, I met the man Papavasileiou. And I must say that I was impressed. I hope to have many more occasions to meet him in the future and perhaps report again in this blog. Meanwhile, this post is a meager tribute to this great athlete.


  1. Hi Vasilis, Found your Blog as I have been trying to find out as much as I can about Giorgios Papavasileiou. My interest in him stems from his participation in the Melbourne Olympic Games. While I have a list of most of his championship placings I don't have his Panhellenic Championship times, I was totally unaware of his efforts in CISM. Is it still possible to buy a copy of his biography as I am certain it will have all his times (in particular his national records) that I am missing. I have tried to find Costas Tsagkarakis without success Regards, Cyril

  2. Hi Cyril

    Just send me an email to which I can respond: basigram@gmail dot com
    I will try to put you in contact to Costas Tsagkarakis.

    But be advised that the book is in greek.

    Best regards