Swimming: The deadpan gold-digger
The anniversary: 26 years ago, Mark Spitz collected his seventh Olympic gold in eight days - and yawned
Sunday 06 September 1998
Spitz immediately went into Olympic history among the greatest sportsmen of all time. No one had ever won as many events in one Games. Only one previous Olympic competitor, a turn of the century athlete called Ray Ewry, had bettered his full total of nine golds, and no one in the history of standardised swimming pools achieved as many world records - 26. The previous highest total of Olympic swimming golds was the four achieved by another American, Don Schollander, in Tokyo in 1964.
Schollander and Spitz were intense rivals. Up until Munich Schollander, who was four years older, was able to keep the challenge of the unpredictable and temperamental Spitz at bay. That unpredictability was never more obvious than in the 1970 United States outdoor championships in which, in a heat, Spitz became the first man to break 52sec for the 100m freestyle but took only second place in the final. He then broke his own 200m butterfly world record, also in a heat, but came fourth in the final.
His coach, Sherman Chavoor, said Spitz's nervousness in competition, which was at such odds with his confident predictions, could have been put down to a belief that he was the subject of anti-Semitism within the American teams. But in the late summer of 1972, and with something of a strange irony, Spitz overcame any such feelings of personal pressure, even though the Games were disfigured by the killing by Arab terrorists of 11 members of the Israeli team.
Twenty-two years old at the time, dark-haired and with a black moustache, this dental student was the glamour boy of the Olympic pool. His seven golds came in only eight days and consisted of four individual and three relays. Every event was won in a world record time. Only his team-mate Jerry Heidenreich got anywhere near him, losing by four tenths of a second in the 100m free-style. Even so, the distance separating them was over an arm's length.
His first gold came in the 200m butterfly and sent a message that he was in the form of his life. He beat his fellow American Gary Hall following an incredible start, which I described at the time as being an "interception of the starter's thoughts".The butterfly was his speciality. He had set world records in the heats and finals of the American trials, so when he made that astonishing opening to the first day of swimming in Munich he was intent not only on winning but taking the world record to below two minutes. That was the only ambition he failed to achieve, though only by the length of his hand.
His winning margin over a Canadian, Bruce Robertson, in the 100m butterfly final was 1.3sec (or about a body length). There had been much interest in seeing the great East German backstroke champion, Roland Matthes, experiment with a different stroke, but he slipped on his blocks, lost almost a metre and never got near Spitz who a mere 40 minutes later assisted the Americans to win the 4 x 200m freestyle relay.
By then he was at the centre of controversy, having waved a pair of brand- named trainers over his head as he collected one of his medals. He was called before the International Olympic Committee who gave him nothing more than a gentle warning.
His almost casual freestyle wins at 100m and 200m were forgone conclusions, although in the longer race his compatriot Steve Genter led going into the final length. Spitz powerfully thrust past, also leaving the Russian Vladimir Bure trailing. It was a measure of Spitz's superiority that Bure still broke the European record.
In the 4 x 100m medley he had to pull back on the substantial lead Matthes had given to the East Germans. His butterfly leg began with no advantage and finished with a two- metre lead. His only reaction as he stood on the rostrum with his seventh gold medal was a yawn.
One of his team-mates said: "You can't really like the guy, he doesn't let you. He's lost contact with real people - a product of a system with no room for personality." An American journalist asked Spitz: "How do you stay so cool?" His typically laconic reply was: "Because I spend so much time in the water, I guess."
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