London, July 31, 2012
There is one person in Olympic swimming history who stands out as the first megastar of the sport. That person is Mark Spitz.
It was 40 years ago at the 1972 Munich Games, a time long before high-tech swimming suits (and even basic swimming caps for the most part), Spitz achieved this legendary status by winning an incredible SEVEN gold medals.
What’s more, he broke seven world records in doing so.
But despite this incredible success, an important part of his memories of those Games is not just the significant amount of gold he ended up with around his neck, but the broader meaning itself of what it meant to take part at an Olympic Games.
Looking back to his achievement, Spitz says: “The act of competing in that friendly environment is pretty amazing and pretty incredible. You go to the Olympic Games, there’s about 10,000 athletes, there’s about 250 to 260 contested events, so not everybody is going to walk away with a medal. But we walk away with a similar experience that we made it to represent our country and that’s also part of the fanfare that’s exciting.”
40 years on and another name now challenges Spitz as the unprecedented legend of the sport: Michael Phelps.
Asked about his fellow American, Spitz is full of praise. He says: “Michael Phelps is a unique individual. He’s 27 and everybody has been playing catch up to him over the last number of years. But one of his biggest challenges is his team-mate Ryan Lochte. He swims the 200 and the 400 individual medley and also swims both backstroke events; all of which have been winning events for Michael Phelps. So it will be very interesting to see how they sort themselves out between the two of them and what happens at the Olympic trials. Either way it’s going to be great to watch the two of them compete against each other.
And this rivalry, coming to a head at this summer’s London Games, is a real source of excitement for the swimming legend: “We don't know exactly what’s going to happen right now. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for both men to prove themselves against the other. Competitive spirit basically breeds greater performances.”
Despite competing 40 years apart, it is inevitable that the question is asked as to who would win if Spitz and Phelps had ever raced together at their respective peaks.
When asked himself, however, Spitz remains typically statesmanlike for such a legend of his sport: “I know that I won by greater margins than he’s been winning so it was very distinct the victory margin that I had over my competitors. Somebody once pointed out to me that because of that maybe I would get the nudge or the lead. My response to that is that I don't think that that’s the case. I mean maybe my competitors weren’t as competitive, so it looked more grandiose than it actually might have been.”
Spitz’s appreciation for the philosophy of friendship so inherent to the Games, is reflected in his support for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and its work across the world using sport to help challenge the world’s most debilitating issues.
“We give hope where there’s been despair; we give opportunities for the last 12 years which has affected the lives of over a million people in programmes throughout the world. We currently have over 100 programmes and I’m really proud to say that we’re continually growing and creating new relationships with different groups throughout the world.”