Athletics: Interview Sir Eddie Kulukundis - Gifts from Sir with love

British athletes keep the faith thanks to the charity of their arch benefactor
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HE CALLS himself the god-father of British athletics, but only, he says, in the nice old-fashioned way. Post-Puzzo, more Father Christmas than Marlon Brando. A litany of athletes from Steve Ovett through to Dean Macey would confirm that killing with kindness is the preferred style of Sir Eddie Kulukundis.

The deal with Macey, silver medallist in the decathlon at the World Championships in Seville, was simple enough: Kulukundis dived into his extensive car pool to provide Macey with wheels and Macey returned what remained of the car a few months later. On one occasion, the timelag between provision and destruction was no more than an afternoon. "Not write-offs, just accidents," says Kulukundis in his best boys-will-be-boys tone. After three crashes, Macey gave up and Kulukundis funded his warm winter training instead.

Then there was Fatima Whitbread, who needed a hotel room in Helsinki, and Denise Lewis, whose mother couldn't afford the travel expenses to watch her daughter, and Dwain Chambers, who had to move out of home and needed help with a flat, and a thousand other little philanthropic Post- it notes. Only a handful of British athletes over the past two decades have not had some cause to thank Kulukundis, which says something about the nature of the man and a lot more about the haphazard way we have tended to treat one of our most successful sports.

Somewhere, in a ledger kept by his secretary, a price can be put on Kulukundis's legacy to athletics and the arts. Every deal is recorded because, theoretically, each one is only a loan. But both parties know the score and Kulukundis would never do anything as vulgar as look at the books to see what he is owed. Visiting Indianapolis recently for the US trials, Kulukundis was surprised to find an envelope pushed beneath the door of his hotel room. In it was a cheque and a note from David Jenkins, the disgraced 400m runner. "To Eddie, please find enclosed the $800 which you lent me in 1978."

Credit is not measured in the currency which once allowed the name of Kulukundis to be bracketed with Onassis and Niarchos in the hierarchy of Greek shipping magnates. Macey's silver medal was a source of high- profile delight because the Canvey Islander is the sort of down-home character who all too often has slipped through the net, but the achievement of the pole-vaulter Mike Edwards, once a delinquent member of the British team, in completing an MA in Business Studies in America has given his part-time benefactor equal pleasure.

Occasionally some strings are attached to the purse, like the challenges issued to two pole-vaulters this summer. Kulukundis didn't really mean it. When both failed to reach their designated heights, the deadline was extended until the New Year. Only discourtesy stirs Kulukundis's displeasure; not taking time to say hello and thank you or in the case of one of his beneficiaries, incurring too many unnecessary parking tickets.

"My luck," he said once, "is that my parents were very wealthy." His bad luck is that people know it and, as his wife, the actress Susan Hampshire, has complained, take advantage of it. Kulukundis accepts it as part of the job, but is happy to admit that his father's business instinct was not handed down with the inheritance. A magazine, Athletics Today, and a travel agency both failed. "If you don't run a business with one eye open for the costs, it's a disaster," he sighs. "So I have to say I'm a very poor businessman."

What amuses him is the divergent and telling attitudes of the British establishment. "I probably lost about pounds 2m in the theatre, but because there was always a deal that I might make money, people didn't consider it charity, they considered it bad business. When I came into athletics I lost horribly, but everyone considered me a great benefactor. I got an OBE out of it and by 1993 a knighthood." The OBE was strictly for sports, the knighthood for services to "sports and the arts".

Though unscheduled donations to Lloyd's in the collapse of the early Nineties and a damaging inability to say "no" to anyone touting a credible hard luck story have eroded some of his fortune, Kulukundis still has enough pocket money left to pursue his passion for sport. It did not start quite that way. Sport, like the changing of his Christian name from Elias to Edward for purposes of his knighthood, was a means of acceptance. A Sunday newspaper referred to him as Eddie the Greek, which not surprisingly irritates him, given that he was born at 26 Warbeck Street, London W2. But his parents moved to New York when Eddie was eight and an English accent allied to an exotic and patently unEnglish surname made him a source of curiosity, even in the cosmopolitan playground of a New York island school.

Not being much of an active sportsman, Kulukundis turned to the next best thing. He became a passive sportsman, the swot, the team anorak, the statistician, the guy who would keep the score and carry the sweaters. He still loves a good stat and will call in from all over the world to check on the progress of his team in the Sports Aid Foundation fantasy cricket league. Baseball was his game then until a return to England and a chance meeting with David Hemery, the Olympic gold medallist, opened the doors on the crazy, cosy, chaotic little world of amateur athletics. Through Harry Wilson, Steve Ovett's coach, he received the names of several athletes who needed help. And so the gravy train rolled. Along the tracks, besides developing an abiding love for the sport, Kulukundis has accumulated a bewildering portfolio: chairman of the London Coaching Foundation, the Midland Coaching Foundation and Athletes Youth Performance, vice-president of UK Athletics, chairman of the British Athletic Field Event Charitable Trust (being a good 20-odd stone himself, Kulukundis has a particular affection for the sport's heavyweights), chairman and patron of the Belgrave Harriers athletics club. Those are the posts he can remember at least.

But his most significant contribution to British sport has come through his work with the Sports Aid Foundation, of which he is a vice- president, trustee, governor and former chairman. In the absence of any noticeable government interest, the SAF was the Lottery jackpot of its day, raising and distributing funds to athletes in need. It was largely a thankless task. "At times, people did question whether we were banging our heads against a brick wall," says Chris Goldie, head of the SAF. "But Eddie kept us going and he remains a guiding light. Very few people have been as generous over such a long period." If a worthy cause went unanswered, Kulukundis would more often than not make up the injustice out of his own pocket: the fifth member of the modern pentathlon team denied the funding given to his four colleagues, the young yachtsman short of some hi-tech gadget. The Lottery has usurped much of that role, so the SAF have moved to cover the wasteland below the elite level.

"I feel quite sad wearing my SAF hat," Kulukundis says. "I thought we had it just about right. At the SAF, we interviewed every single person who was getting support and we could see exactly what an athlete needed. Now it's all been reduced to a bureaucratic formula."

Seville, though, was an encouraging reflection of post-lottery professionalism, even if the one gold came from Colin Jackson, an old stager. The appearance of Macey as a realistic contender for a decathlon gold in Sydney, the fact that a blond statue from territory more associated with West Ham footballers lifted the spirits of the whole British team. Much of the confidence Macey took into Seville stemmed from a track and field meeting in Arles last season which Kulukundis had organised and financed.

So what does this remarkable man get for his cash? To rub shoulders with fine athletes, for sure, a share of reflected glory, a blast of the pageantry; a position nicely balanced on the cusp of the establishment, the feeling of belonging in a world which has sometimes denied him that privilege, a seat on the Wimbledon Centre Court. There is no pomposity about his giving, no demand for recognition beyond the boundaries of common politeness. He confesses to having been a "delayed hippie" in his twenties and traces of Woodstock remain in the style 40-something years on. Perhaps that makes him a soft touch, as the cynics say. Perhaps too, athletics should be more self-sufficient, able to fund and finance talent all on its own without recourse to individual charity. In the meantime, athletes like Dean Macey should form an orderly queue at the door of the dispensary.