120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 28): Mark Spitz – From ‘Golds’ to ‘Escaping for Life’


Seven events, seven wins, seven world records – need we say more? Yes such is the story of the legend of Mark Spitz and his exploits at the 1972 Munich Olympics which is undoubtedly one of the most envied exploits by an athlete in an Olympic edition.

At the start of this Olympic series, we had a few anecdotes on swimmers like Alfred Hajos and Johnny ‘The Tarzan’ Weissmuller, but then the pools were not touched as much. Coming back to the stories in water again, Spitz was one of all-time best all-round swimmers. Known as the ‘Shark’ for his supremacy in the pool, Spitz was already a two-time gold-medal winning Olympian by the time he reached Munich. In 1968 Mexico Games, the 6-feet American had bagged them in freestyle team events. In addition, he won a silver (100m butterfly) and a bronze (100m freestyle) as well.

Spitz, however, admitted the Mexico Games to be the worst meet of his life. The reason is simply because he failed to win any individual event and his lackluster eighth finish (read, he came last) in the 200m butterfly final was the biggest blot on the 1968 saga. With a change of coaching staff and a new vigour, ‘Mark the Shark’ set off for the gala.

His first event was the 200m butterfly where he was pitted against his room-mate Gary Hall. This time Spitz avenged the disgrace of four years back to win it by more than two seconds in a record-time (2 min 0.7 sec). Thirty minutes later, he played a crucial role in his team winning the 4x100m freestyle relay. This too was a world record (3 min 26.4 sec). Spitz won his third gold beating Steve Genter in 200m freestyle medal round again in a world record time (1 min 52.8 sec).

The records kept falling apart and the gold medals came pouring in as the American swimming sensation won the 100m butterfly (54.3 sec) followed by the 4x200m freestyle relay (7 min 35.8 sec) on a single day. Later in the event, he won another gold in world-record time (3 min 48.2 sec) for his 4x100m freestyle medley taking the count to a record six in his discipline.

However for the last event, he was not very sure for his team-mate Jerry Heidenreich boasted of a faster split of 0.1 seconds in the earlier-conducted freestyle medley. Afraid of losing, Spitz thought of quitting the 100m freestyle which was definitely the cherry on the cake and without which the other achievements would rather look bleak.

In a dilemma with his own declining self-esteem and the ground reality, the swimmer-with-an-odd-moustache however was persuaded by a coach of his contingent to go for the final glory and establish his undoubting supremacy. Though Spitz came second in both the heats up to the final, he did beat Heidenreich by 0.41 seconds to win the most-sought gold in swimming. And guess what – it was yet another world record (51.2 sec). Meanwhile, Heidenreich ended the Games with 2 golds, a silver and a bronze – the tally very much identical to what Spitz could bag four years ago.

The American’s last event was held on 4th September – exactly a day before the Games were marred by Palestine militants taking hostages of the Israeli athletes. By the time Spitz appeared for the customary morning press conference on 5th September morning, two athletes were already killed while nine were seized in the Olympic Village itself. The authorities were quick to realize the fact that Spitz being a Jew himself could be a potential target for the militants who were of anti-Jewish propaganda.

Immediately, the German Chancellor Willy Brandt himself took upon the task of the safety of Spitz – the glaring star of the event. In the evening, the authorities arranged for his safe passage to the airport – in the rear of a car lying on the floor and covered with a blanket – from where he boarded a flight to London before taking a second to California. Back home fearing any retaliation, Ronald Regan, the then Governor of California and future President of the United States, had the Secret Service personnel posted at his residence for the next three months.

Following the Munich exploits, ‘Mark the Shark’ retired from the game although he was just aged 22. Away from the pool, Spitz never felt lacking in raking up the moohlas as he earned over six million dollars in the next two years out of promotions and endorsements. Almost twenty years later, Spitz tried a futile attempt to make a comeback for the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Though heroics of Spitz were overhauled by countrymen Michael Phelps in the 2008 Beijing Olympics where the latter went on to win 8 golds, Phelps could only equal to the 7 world-records of his predecessor. Till now, Mark Spitz remains as only the fifth Olympian to win nine career golds or more at the Olympics. He was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

Photo by JohnSeb