NEWS

Greek-US former pole-vaulter to carry Olympic Flame at 95

LOS ANGELES – In 1932, a 23-year-old Greek pole-vaulter named Peter Clentzos marched into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Summer Olympics. Yesterday, Clentzos was back – a day after turning 95. The man believed to be the oldest living Greek Olympian was expected to be the oldest person in the US leg of the Olympic torch relay which began yesterday. For Clentzos, who will walk with the flame about 400 meters outside the Coliseum, the relay is another chance to honor the country that gave birth to the Olympics and hosts them from August 13-29. «It is one of the biggest thrills of my life,» he said. «To know that the flame will end up in a country that will be born again with the Olympic spirit is just amazing.» The torch is set to arrive in Los Angeles after a flight from Mexico City. Among those who will carry it during its one-day stop are swimmer Janet Evans, who won four Olympic gold medals, and Hollywood stars Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone and Ellen DeGeneres. The flame will make an appearance in St Louis today, Atlanta tomorrow, and New York on Saturday before being sent to Montreal and eventually on to Athens. Clentzos was nominated to carry the torch by friend Nicolas Nicolaidis, 71, who wrote to the committee overseeing the relay after the two men met at a social gathering for Greek Americans earlier this year. «He has such a great enthusiasm and love for the Olympics,» said Nicolaidis, a retired businessman. Born in the United States to Greek parents, Clentzos was a pole-vaulter at the University of Southern California in the early 1930s. His dual citizenship allowed him to try out for both the US and Greek Olympic teams. He failed to make the US squad but was selected for the Greek contingent. During the Games, he finished seventh in the pole vault competition, clearing 3.75 meters (12 feet, 3.5 inches). American Bill Miller won the gold medal. «I felt great that day, but I have no excuses,» Clentzos said. «It was just one of those days.» Despite his disappointment, Clentzos has fond memories of the Olympics that helped energize a country that had been beaten down by the Great Depression. He recalled little security at the Games. Athletes staying in the Olympic Village watched movies at night in an amphitheater, and large crowds of spectators got around on streetcars. «There was such a camaraderie among the athletes and complete respect for one another,» he said. Clentzos, who lives in Pasadena, has held on to much of his Olympic past. His home is adorned with photos from his younger days and newspaper clippings in English and Greek. He still has a bamboo pole that lifted him up during competitions and sometimes let him down – painfully. «Those poles could break pretty easily,» he said. «At one meet at Harvard, I landed in a dirt pit. It hurt, but I didn’t think about it too much.» Clentzos eventually became a star in Europe, winning the pole vault in the 1935 Balkan Games. He held the Greek national pole vault record from 1935-50 after clearing 4.065 meters (13 feet 4 inches). He went on to coach youths in track and field, visiting China in 1979 as part of a coaching clinic, and co-found the Senior Olympics. He was married for 41 years to his wife, Helen, who was born in Troy, New York, and died in 1985. «I called her Helen of Troy,» he said. These days, Clentzos stays fit by walking about a kilometer (half a mile) every morning, lifting weights and swimming. He eats two meals a day, mostly fruits and vegetables. So what is his secret of life? «Exercise,» he said. «Life is meant to be active. It’s work, but it’s worth it.» Clentzos visited Athens in 1996 and plans to return to watch the upcoming Games. The Athens Organizing Committee doesn’t plan to include him in the ceremonies, but he doesn’t mind. Greece, which has been behind schedule in completing some Olympic venues, will persevere, he said. «Don’t underestimate the Greeks,» Clentzos said. «They’ll be ready.»