Triumph and Tragedy in Munich

Mark Spitz on nine days that shook the world and how changing lives with Sport for Good is worth more than gold
A lot changes in 50 years. But not everything.
The jet-black hair is now grey, but the razor-straight parting hasn’t moved an inch.
The moustache that launched a thousand other moustaches, and adorned a million bedroom walls, is no more, but at 72 years of age, its former owner still glides through the water two or three times every week, raising eyebrows at the UCLA pool in Los Angeles.
“I weighed myself this morning,” says Mark Spitz, as he prepares for a photo shoot with Laureus that will mirror images taken in Munich in 1972. “I’m 178lbs, the same as when I competed.”
Gold doesn’t rust.
Half a century has passed since Spitz held the world’s gaze, at a Games that changed the way we saw the world. He won seven gold medals and set seven world records in the process. He has spent time this year back in Munich, filming an official Olympic documentary about the 1972 Games that is essential viewing.
Spitz stands on the starting blocks ahead of his first final, the 200m butterfly. He looks magnificent: tall, tanned, the hair, that moustache. But inside he is coming apart.
“I was having these flashbacks to four years earlier, in Mexico City,” he says. “I had been the world record holder in that event and I finished dead last.”
The image on screen flashes back to the previous Olympics. Glorious technicolour is replaced by scratchy, static black-and-white footage of Spitz as an 18-year-old boy, whose Olympic dream is crumbling down.
A lot changes in four years
By the time the Munich Games came around, the local organising committee had hired a group of German filmmakers to document not just the competition, but the lives of the athletes before and after they took to the biggest stage in the sporting world. It was this vital, beautiful footage that staggered Spitz.

“It was 20 minutes of film that I had never seen before. I wasn't conscious that they had been filming everything. The International Olympic Committee had all of this out-take footage that never made the documentaries they made at the time. I only saw 20 minutes of it. There's 300 hours of it!”

In amongst those cannisters of film was footage of Spitz’s parents, Lenore and Arnold, in the stands at Munich’s Schwimmhalle.
On the final day of competition, the actor Kirk Douglas, star of ‘Spartacus!’ and father of Michael, is seated next to the Spitzes. As Mark wins his seventh gold, swimming butterfly in the men’s 4x100m medley relay team, the movie star turns to the proud parents and says: “Your lives will never be the same.”
Cut to poolside and the legendary American broadcaster Howard Cosell is interviewing the exhausted Spitz, who confirms his immediate retirement at the age of 22.
“I’m done!” he exhales.
“You’ll never be done!” retorts Cosell. The man who documented the greatness of Muhammad Ali understands perfectly that this kind of story never fades.
And here is Mark Spitz, 50 years later, proving Kirk Douglas and Howard Cosell right.
Neither of them could have foreseen the next turn in the tale, however.
Spitz is celebrating a legacy that stretches from those seven Olympic finals through to the work he has done in the past 22 years, as a founding member of the Laureus Academy. He was on stage in 2000, when Nelson Mandela, our founding patron, gave voice to the Laureus mission: “Sport has the power to change the world.”
In 1972, in the immediate aftermath of Spitz’s final swim, a group of eight terrorists from a Palestinian group called Black September would use the global attention around the world’s greatest sporting spectacle to terrible ends.
They entered the Olympic Village and killed two members of the Israeli team, taking nine further athletes and coaches hostage. Before the end of the ordeal, all of the hostages, one West German police officer and five terrorists would be dead.
“Less than 24 hours after winning seven gold medals, I experienced the horror of the massacre of 11 Israeli team members,” said Spitz. “The greatest sporting event we have was used to spread terror that day, but through my work with Laureus Sport for Good over 22 years, I know that sport has the power to change lives and create opportunity and hope – and that’s more valuable than any Olympic medal.”
No champion has ever had as dramatic an exit from the arena as that of Mark Spitz following his final gold-medal swim. Having won four individual golds (100m and 200m butterfly, 100m and 200m freestyle) and three more in relay teams (4x100m and 4x200m freestyle, 4x100m medley), an exhausted Spitz was taken out for dinner by two journalists. Unknown to him, at the same time as he returned home late that night, eight members of the Black September terrorist group had entered the Olympic Village.
Spitz was still unaware of the breaking story as he walked into what he thought would be a press conference about his achievements the following morning. Because the seven-time champion was Jewish, it was feared he could be a target and soon Spitz was secretly rushed to safety under armed guard.
He recalled: “After the press conference I was sitting in the Olympic Village, in my room, watching TV and there was constant comment: ‘We believe Mark Spitz has been removed and is in Italy. About 20 minutes later: ‘No, that information was wrong, he's somewhere in Sweden.’ I don’t know if they were saying that to get people off the scent, because I was still in my room in the Olympic Village. It took a few hours to have a definitive plan.
“My coach and I were put the backseat of a car and they told me to crouch down and they put this blanket over me. After about five minutes they told me to sit up, and we were driven to the airport and then we were on a plane to London.
“When we got to London there was an armed guard outside the door, all night long. Before we went to bed, he said: ‘You're dangerous to be around.’  
“I go: ‘Well, I was actually thinking the same thing about you.’
“We didn't know what was going on in Germany. When we woke up in the morning, the guard told us what happened – in that late evening, everything had happened in the military base, where the remaining athletes were killed.”
A botched ambush at an airfield resulted in the death of every one of the remaining hostages, a West German policeman and five of the terrorists. The link between Spitz’s Olympic story and that of the Israeli team has survived for half a century.
“Thirteen years later I had an opportunity to meet a couple of the wives of the slain athletes when I was in Israel and two of their children and they related to me in a big way: One, that I was Jewish; and No.2 that I was at the same Olympics with their fathers.
“It was a terrible tragedy, not only for those athletes but for the Olympic movement and for the families in particular. We are still talking about it today.”
Life went on for Spitz after Munich, but not as he knew it. Suddenly, he was free of the dedication to training and competition that had anchored his life until this point. But now what? The ’72 Olympics was already the biggest, most-viewed sports event in history, even before the hostage crisis unfolded on television screens around the world, an episode like no other in the young life of that medium. Spitz’s incredible success and his proximity to that global story meant that he soon had a flood of offers for all kinds of work.
“You know, there was no path that I could follow,” he said. “Nobody to talk to who had been in that position before. It was a whole new frontier. There had never been anybody to capitalise from an amateur sport – or from an Olympics – as I did.”
Nor would there be again. Commercialism would soon nudge the amateur ideals of the Olympic movement aside. Endorsements and advertisements, as well as government funding, would allow future athletes to extend their Olympic career.
“That’s why Michael Phelps stayed around and swam in so many Olympic Games, it was not only in his best interest, but for his sponsors. Thank goodness for that, not only for him but the world, we got to see the greatest Olympian develop, over the course of utilising – I would imagine – my record as inspiration. If there was no Mark Spitz, I don't know if Michael would try to swim in eight events, and maybe he wouldn't have gone to as many Olympiads.”
Spitz would work on television, in entertainment and as an analyst on national coverage of swimming events. He met US Presidents from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton, before in 2000 finding a new focus for his legacy on stage with another global leader, Nelson Mandela, at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards.
It was the beginning of a new chapter for Spitz, one which held as its goal not Olympic glory, but hope and opportunity for young people all over the world.
“I was first approached in 1999 and told about the idea of Laureus and Sport For Good,” he said. “I told them back then: ‘If this thing is only half as good as you say, it’s going to be absolutely incredible. And here we are, 22 years later, and we have more than 250 programmes in 50 countries.

“This isn’t about developing Olympians – these programmes are sustainable, they are there for the long term in these communities.

“The athletes in the Laureus Academy – people listen to us, we have that platform, we can get the message out there. And we back that up with these projects and the many success stories that arise from them.
“I was in a project in Hong Kong that was a multi-sport programme, called Operation Breakthrough. It’s for incarcerated younger adults. I saw the boxing programme and met this one gentleman that had gone through the programme and then become a director. So not only did he benefit from the programme in getting his feet back on the ground once he got back out into society, he, by example, could relate to other young people in a similar situation. The impact of that sort of work is monumental.”
But back to those pictures. The most famous pose replicates a shot taken by a German weekly in London, to where Spitz and his coach had been hurried in the aftermath of the hostage crisis. Spitz, stood in his swimming suit, seven gold medals around his neck, that Californian suntan, that moustache, the hands placed confidently on his hips, an almost heavenly light glowing behind him.
The publisher wisely produced a poster of the image and it became the best-selling poster in the world, an eighth world record, of sorts, for Spitz.
Fifty years later he strikes the same pose, in more modest attire, because a lot changes in 50 years. But not everything.

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