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For the past thirty years, Greece has been a parliamentary republic with a president as head of state. But before that, the country had two periods of rule by a monarch. Constantine II, who currently lives in London, was forced into exile after a military government seized power in 1967.
The former king is related to most of European royalty. His sister Sophia is married to King Juan Carlos of Spain and he is third cousin to Prince Charles of Great Britain. "Today" host Katie Couric talked to King Constantine who is now back in Greece for the Olympic games.
With the Olympics taking place in Athens, one person who is extremely proud is Constantine, the former king of Greece. He won a gold medal in sailing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and he's in Greece as an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee.
Katie Couric: “You've been in exile for 37 years now. What is it like to come back to Greece to witness these Olympic Games?”
King Constantine: “To have the Olympic Games in my country is such an excitement, and that's a dream that I’ve had always. It's nice to see, how it's unifying the whole nation.”
Watching the Greek team enter the stadium during the opening ceremonies was a highlight for the former king. He was the flag bearer for Greece at the 1960 games.
King Constantine: “I remember I had the privilege of holding the flag, when our team came in and the roar of the crowd was something that is still in my ears.”
The medal Constantine won in sailing in 1960 was the first gold for Greece in 50 years.
King Constantine: “Getting the gold medal, it was the greatest feeling in my life, other than getting engaged to my wife. And to hear the national anthem of your country, and you know you are not doing it for yourself, you are doing it for your country, is very important.”
Constantine became engaged to Princess Ann Marie of Denmark in 1964, just six months before his father King Paul died.
Couric: “You became king in 1964, when you were just 24 years old. Where you equipped to handle the job at such a young age, was it daunting for you?”
King Constantine: “It is daunting, the thing that was the worst thing of all, was the fact that I lost my father. He was a very wise man. The shock of losing him was enormous. I just had to get on with it. But I was very young and the responsibilities enormous.”
But after being king for just three years, he faced a military coup d'etat in April of 1967.
King Constantine: “Well, that I've mentioned many times before was the worst day of my life. It was a sort of, you had a sort of feeling that the country is going in to dark age – the sort of helpless feeling that everybody is being arrested.”
In fact, 8000 people were arrested, including the king and his staff.
Couric: “There was a photograph taken of you on April 21st, 1967 with the military government. As a result, many people believed that you actually supported the colonels who were responsible for the coup, when in fact you didn't?”
King Constantine: “I had a thunder's look on my face, which I had purposely wanted to be photographed with them, so I could communicate with the people, that I don't like this situation.”
Six months later, Constantine tried to organize a counter coup but his efforts failed. He fled to Rome fearing a civil war.
King Constantine: “The best thing for me to do was tell the armed forces that I was leaving the country and stop any kind of tremendous damage to the nation."
In 1974, there was a referendum in Greece to decide the fate of the king. The monarchy was defeated by 69 percent of the majority.
King Constantine: “It is quite a cultural shock to suddenly realize that the telephone is not going to ring [and] your opinion doesn't carry the same weight.”
Constantine says his wife and five children have supported him through these tumultuous times. His eldest son, crown Prince Pavlov, is married to Marie Chantal miller, daughter of duty free tycoon Robert Miller. His daughter, Alexia, is married to an architect from Spain. His son, Prince Nikolaos, is known as London’s most eligible prince. All together, Constantine has five grandchildren with a new one on the way.
King Constantine: “So I was lucky that it happened [when I was] young and I had a family to look after me and I had my whole life in front of me. So it was not so much of a trauma that it would have been, if it had happened let's say at this age.”
Over the years, the former king has returned to Greece only a few times. He lost his citizenship in a 1994 law and refuses to declare a family name which would allow him a Greek passport. He visits the country with a Danish one.
Couric: “In the past, when you've traveled to Greece you haven't gotten a particularly warm welcome. In 1993, you were chased out of Greek waters by gunboats and fighter planes. What has the reception been like for you since you've arrived here?”
King Constantine: “The people have been so kind to us, wherever we go, the atmosphere has changed dramatically.”
The former king has also defended Greece from critics who say there have been delays in Olympic preparations.
King Constantine: “We are a small country, and we are putting up a tremendous show. And to have that kind of criticism was demoralizing also for the people, who are working to get this show of the ground. And the fact that this criticism was there, has benefited us now, because a lot of the world press have seen that perhaps they were mistaken in that criticism.”
Constantine says his heart is, and will always be, Greek.
Couric: “Do you ever envision yourself coming back to Greece permanently?”
King Constantine: “Yes, absolutely without doubt. That's what I'm doing now, we are looking for a place to live because being back in Greece, the Greek smell of the sea, seeing the mountains, and being with Greek people again is paramount. I don't care if I'm the head of state, if I'm the king of the country or just a simple citizen – [it] is just being with Greek people and be in my own country that counts most of all.”
After the defeat of the monarchy in 1974, the Greek government seized three of the Constantine’s estates in Greece. Two years ago, the European court ruled that he was the rightful owner of those estates and ordered the Greek government to pay $12 million as compensation. Constantine says that money is going to a charitable foundation he set up to benefit Greek farmers whose harvest was destroyed by natural disasters.