Constantine, the Olympic gold medalist and the last king of Greece, died at the age of 82

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s former and last King Constantine, who won an Olympic gold medal and spent decades in exile before becoming embroiled in his country’s volatile politics as king in the 1960s, has died. He was 82 years old.

Doctors at the private Hygeia Hospital in Athens confirmed to The Associated Press that Constantine died after being treated in the intensive care unit on Tuesday evening, but no other details were available pending an official announcement.

When he ascended the throne as Constantine II in 1964 at the age of 23, the young monarch achieved fame as an Olympic gold medalist in sailing. The following year, he squandered much of this support by actively participating in the machinations that brought down Prime Minister George Papandreou’s elected Central Union government.

An episode of defection by several lawmakers, still known in Greece as “defection”, destabilized the constitutional order and led to a military coup in 1967. Constantine was eventually confronted by the military leaders and forced into exile.

The dictatorship overthrew the monarchy in 1973, and after democracy was restored in 1974, a referendum ended Constantine’s hopes of returning to power.

In the following decades, reduced to simple ephemeral visits to Greece, each time they caused a political and media storm, he was able to migrate to his native country in its declining years, resisting his presence and becoming emblematic of vigilant republicanism. With minimal nostalgia for the monarchy in Greece, Constantine became a relatively controversial figure.

Constantine was born on June 2, 1940 in Athens to Prince Paul, the younger brother of King George II and heir to the throne, and Princess Frederica of Hanover. His older sister Sofia is the wife of former King Juan Carlos I of Spain. Born in Greece, Prince Philip was the brother of the late Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Apart from the 12-year republican period between 1922 and 1935, the family that ruled Greece from 1863 descended from Prince Christian of Denmark, later Christian IX, of the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg branch of the Danish ruling family.

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Before Constantine’s first birthday, the royal family was forced to flee Greece during the German invasion of World War II, moving to Alexandria in Egypt, South Africa, and back to Alexandria. King George II returned to Greece after a controversial referendum in 1946, but died a few months later and was succeeded by King Paul I of Constantine.

Constantine was educated at a boarding school, then attended three military academies in Athens, as well as law classes to prepare for his future role. He also participated in various sports, including sailing and holding a black belt in karate.

In 1960, at the age of 20, he and two other Greek sailors won a gold medal in the dragon class at the Rome Olympics – which is no longer an Olympic class. While still a prince, Constantine was elected a member of the International Olympic Committee and became an honorary life member in 1974.

King Paul I died of cancer on March 6, 1964, and Constantine succeeded him a few weeks later after the Center Union Party defeated the conservatives with 53% of the vote.

Prime Minister George Papandreou and Constantine initially had a very close relationship, but it quickly soured due to Constantine’s insistence that control of the armed forces was the monarch’s prerogative.

As many officers toyed with the idea of ​​a dictatorship, viewing any non-conservative government as soft on communism, Papandreou wanted control of the Ministry of Defense and eventually insisted on becoming Minister of Defense. After a bitter exchange of letters with Constantine, Papandreou resigned in July 1965.

Constantine’s insistence on appointing a government of centrist defectors, who won a narrow parliamentary majority in the third attempt, was deeply unpopular. Many saw him as a ploy by his scheming mother, Queen Dowager Frederica.

“People don’t want you, take your mother and leave!” In the summer of 1965, it turned into a protest that rocked Greece.

Eventually, Constantine made peace with Papandreou and, with his consent, installed a government of technocrats and then a government led by conservatives to organize elections in May 1967.

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But with the polls in favor of the Central Union and the popularity of Papandreou’s leftist son Andreas, Constantine and his courtiers, fearing reprisals, staged a revolt with the help of high-ranking officers.

However, a group of lower-ranking officers, led by colonels, planned their own coup, informed Constantine of his plan, and declared a dictatorship on April 21, 1967.

Constantine was impressed and his feelings about the new rulers were evident in the official photo of the new government. He pretends to be with them as they prepare a counter-revolution with the help of troops from northern Greece and a loyal navy.

On December 13, 1967, Constantine marched with his family to Thessaloniki and flew to the northern city of Kavala with the intention of establishing a government there. A poorly led and infiltrated counter-revolution collapsed and Constantine was forced to flee to Rome the next day. He would never return as king.

The junta appointed a regent and abolished the monarchy on June 1, 1973, following a failed naval counter-coup in May 1973. A plebiscite held in July, the majority supported the decision, recognizing it as rigged.

When the dictatorship fell in July 1974, Constantine wanted to return to Greece, but was advised against by veteran politician Constantine Karamanlis, who had returned from exile to lead a civilian government. Karamanlis, who also headed the government from 1955 to 1963, was a conservative but clashed with the courts over what he saw as excessive interference in politics.

After winning the November elections, Karamanlis called for a plebiscite on the monarchy in 1974. Constantine was not allowed to campaign in the country, but the result was clear and widely accepted: 69.2% voted in favor of the republic.

Not long after, Karamanlis said that the nation was freed from cancer. Konstantin said the day after the referendum that “national unity should come first… I sincerely hope that events will justify the result of yesterday’s vote.”

Recognizing that Greece was now a republic until his last days, Constantine continued to present himself as King of Greece and his children as princes and princesses, even though Greece no longer recognized noble titles.

During his years in exile, he lived near Hampstead Gardens, London, and was especially close to his second cousin, Charles, Prince of Wales and now King Charles III.

Although it took Constantine 14 years to return to his country in 1981 to bury his mother, Queen Frederica, he has since increased his visits and has lived there since 2010. Conflicts continued: in 1994, the socialist government of the time stripped him of his nationality and expropriated what was left of the royal family’s goods. Constantine appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and won 12 million euros in 2002, a fraction of the 500 million he claimed.

He is survived by his wife, former Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, younger sister of Queen Margrethe II; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nicholas, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren.

Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this.

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