Spitz has left big wake

Swimming: Michael Phelps is chasing the Olympic standard set by a man who is something of an enigma.

Athens 2004

August 13, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - There is so much to compare and contrast between Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps: money, motivation and one deadly matter.

Fear of terrorism has hung over these Games, a bleak bookend to Phelps and his chase after history, the seven gold medals won by Mark Spitz at the Munich Olympics.

That haul was completed on the evening of Sept. 4, 1972. Hours later, members of a Palestinian organization called Black September sneaked into the athletes' village and took Israeli team members hostage. Two were killed during the break-in and the nine hostages eventually died during a shootout between the terrorists and West German authorities.

Spitz is a Jew, and an armed-guard escort accompanied him from a morning-after news conference to a jet that rushed him to London. Was he able to enjoy the greatest accomplishment in Summer Olympic history?

"I think I enjoyed my moment," Spitz said last week. "Did I take it all in on the awards stand? The only time I would have done that was my last event, because I was always thinking about the next one. I know what Phelps is about to go through."

The answer was vintage Spitz, who for much of the past three decades has been an enigma, keeping American swimming at arm's length and cashing in on his celebrity overseas.

Listen to his coach during a speech in 1971, when the late Doc Counsilman said: "I've yet to have a good swimmer who was talented physically and also well-adjusted."

The Internet, ESPN and saturation coverage of sports didn't exist in 1972. The core Olympic sports had some appeal throughout the year, but Spitz was not hyped the way Phelps has been.

Munich's enduring television moment wasn't Spitz on a medal podium or gymnast Olga Korbut nailing a routine, but Jim McKay informing the American public the Israeli hostages were "all gone."

The ABC anchor never met a man he didn't like, but the two mentions of Spitz in his diary of the Munich Olympics aren't flattering.

Phelps' practices are propelled by the rap song that's playing when he turns off his Cadillac SUV. When ABC went up close and personal with Spitz, he said he envisioned a different pretty girl on the pool wall each lap. He defied swimming convention with a mustache that one contemporary called plumage.

Peter Daland, the men's Olympic coach in 1972, said that was all an act, that he remembers Spitz as a brittle figure who had to be coaxed into the 100-meter freestyle, his final individual event. Of course, Spitz won in world-record time.

Phelps spent the past seven years under one coach, but Spitz was molded by three giants of his time. Counsilman coached him in college. George Haines worked him at the Santa Clara (Calif.) Swim Club, and Sherm Chavoor, his other major influence, was on the American coaching staff in Munich.

Phelps was spurred on by his sister Whitney's failure at the 1996 U.S. team trials. Spitz himself bombed at the Mexico City Olympics, where the shaky 18-year-old won two relay golds but finished eighth in the 200 butterfly, where he owned the world record.

Spitz nonetheless had reason to be brash in Munich.

Phelps and Australian Ian Thorpe have combined to set 25 world records. Spitz finished with 26; his first came in the 400 freestyle when he was 17. That wasn't in his repertoire in Munich, where he won the 100 and 200 freestyles, and 100 and 200 butterflies.

Phelps turned professional at 16, but the old amateur code cut short the careers of his predecessors atop American swimming. Johnny Weissmuller ended preparation for the 1932 Games to become Tarzan in the movies. Spitz received $1 million to pose for a German magazine wearing nothing but a Speedo brief and his seven golds.

"In today's dollars, that would be like $10 million," Spitz said.

After Munich, Spitz dropped his dental school plans. As smooth as he was in the water, he was awkward on television. After a 16-year absence from the sport, he tried to qualify for the 1988 Olympics, when Matt Biondi made the last serious assault on his medal count.

"Mark Spitz had swimming in the forefront. I just don't think anything came out of it," said Gary Hall Jr., the veteran sprinter whose father was an Olympic teammate of Spitz's. "But what he did was nothing short of incredible. He's an Olympic god if there ever was one."

Interest in Spitz spiked when Phelps nearly won four individual events at the 2003 world championships.

He can be refreshingly frank, as Spitz told The Sun last week that if had been convinced his competition was on performance-enhancing drugs, "I would have been tempted to use them." Spitz would say he didn't have time for an interview, then graciously spend an hour talking about what he did and what Phelps is attempting.

His attitude changed by the time the U.S. Olympic team trials were held in Long Beach, not far from his Los Angeles home. Three hours after Phelps did a pre-meet news conference, Spitz did the same. The two finally met July 10, when Spitz was the medal presenter for the 200 butterfly.

Spitz is here, as a spokesman for Panasonic. Hired to promote a remedy for acid reflux disease, Spitz was granting telephone interviews last week. What did he learn about Phelps at the trials?

"I only had two minutes with him," Spitz said. "One thing I noticed is that he breathes every stroke on the butterfly. No one else does that. Everyone who's held the world record breathed every other stroke. I think he would go faster if he did that."

SpitzM-Fs Olympics

A race-by-race look at Mark SpitzM-Fs seven gold medals in 1972 (each time was a world record):

Race Time Margin

100 freestyle 0:51.22 0.43

200 freestyle 1:52.78 0.95

100 butterfly 0:54.27 1.29

200 butterfly 2:00.70 2.16

800 freestyle relay 7:35.78 5.91

400 freestyle relay 3:26.42 3.30

400 medley relay 3:48.16 3.96

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