Athletics benefactor Sir Eddie Kulukundis dies

Gentle and generous giant of track and field will be fondly remembered after he passes away aged 88

Before the era of Lottery funding, British athletes scrimped and saved to afford physiotherapy treatment, warm-weather training camps or air fares to overseas events. In some cases they were helped by a private sponsor and one of the most generous in the history of the sport was Sir Eddie Kulukundis.

Sir Eddie, who has died aged 88, was born into a wealthy family who had made its fortune in the shipping business. An avid athletics fan, from the 1970s through to the turn of the millennium he donated several million pounds in total to promising athletes for little reward other than the simple pleasure of seeing them reach their potential and knowing he helped them along the way.

When Mo Farah moved from Somalia to England, Sir Eddie paid some of the legal costs that helped him become a British citizen and which would, eventually, lead to him winning 10 global titles for Great Britain.

He also gave financial assistance to athletes such as Denise Lewis, Dean Macey and Jason Gardener. Earlier, he helped athletes like Steve Ovett, Sally Gunnell and Roger Black, among many others.

Sir Eddie became inextricably linked to Belgrave Harriers in London, helping fund their athletes and coaches. In the quest for British Athletics League titles, for example, he would sometimes fly steeplechaser Justin Chaston from the US to England just to race 3000m over barriers to claim maximum points in that particular event before sending him back to the States so he could be back in time for work on Monday.

“It is with great sadness that we have heard the news about Sir Eddie,” said John Gladwin, president of Belgrave Harriers. “He was patron of Belgrave Harriers and couldn’t have been more supportive of us.

“We pass on our condolences to the family and our great thanks for everything you did for the club. RIP Sir Eddie.”

Sir Eddie did not restrict his generosity to Belgrave alone, though. He helped athletes from various clubs and was an ever-present at major meetings as he mingled with members of the British Athletics Supporters’ Club as they enjoyed the action.

With his large 20-stone-plus frame he was an unmissable figure, too. But he had lost weight in recent years as he struggled with diabetes and dementia.

He was often described as the ‘godfather of British athletics’ and he was recognised for his philanthropy by receiving an OBE and a knighthood for services to British theatre, charity and sport.

It was well deserved. His generosity aside he was a kind and charming man who always had time to speak to athletes, coaches or fellow athletics fanatics. His conversations were carried out in a slight American accent, too, as he was born in London but moved to New York as a child and went to university at Yale.

Such was his interest in the sport, he even bankrolled the publication of Athletics Today – a weekly athletics magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Several years later he nearly became the first president of UK Athletics, too, but finished runner-up to David Hemery in a vote and instead took the role of vice-president.

Outside athletics his other big passion was the theatre and he ploughed money into West End plays and musicals and in 1981 he married the film and television actress Susan Hampshire, who has looked after him in recent years as his health deteriorated.

Last August the premature news of his death was published on social media. But reports of his demise were untrue and the confusion had been caused by the fact one of his cousins – with a similar name – had died in Greece.

This week, however, the news of his death is sadly correct and he will be remembered as a generous benefactor who helped unofficially fund athletes and coaches long before the National Lottery system arrived.

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