August 13, 2008

Spitz spits fit: US swim legend Mark Spitz won't be on hand in Beijing if Michael Phelps breaks his record of seven gold medals at a single Olympics because, he says, no one bothered to invite him. Should he be reacting this way, or is he simply overreacting?

posted by Kendall to olympics at 12:34 AM - 15 comments

Yeah, that is surprising; he's after all not just any old former Olympian, he's one of the most famous and certainly the USA/NBC centric theme of the games is Michael Phelps and his Magical Quest to Beat Spitz' Record. That said, I don't understand why people who haven't been household names for 36 years should expect to still get the red carpet treatment. If he's a motivational speaker and stockbroker, he's probably earned/earning enough that there's no reason he couldn't just fly himself out to China. Average people who have relatives in the game do just that, without official sponsorship- there's nothing in that article suggesting Spitz is banned from going to China, is there? :)

That said, this quote from the article:

Now a stockbroker and motivational speaker, Spitz also thinks he could have won eight golds himself in Munich if only he had had the chance.

"I won seven events. If they had the 50m freestyle back then, which they do now, I probably would have won that too," he said.


Spitz said it would have been a great idea if he could be the one presenting the gold medals to Phelps, who has for years been candid about his ambition to eclipse the mark of seven golds.

And Spitz thinks Phelps will succeedfor one very good reason.

"He's almost identical to me. He's a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did," Spitz said. "He reminds me of myself."

I give him both props and disdain for these comments. Props, because he seems to wish Phelps well and not have one of those "No way he beats my record!" narcissism, even suggesting (admittedly with a little self-interest) that he have been the one presenting the medals, a sort of changing of the guard for swimming gods. Disdain, because he couldn't resist the old-timers lament "If I was competing today, I'd have won 8 Golds!" Which, the way things are going, would be enough to tie Phelps, who has handily picked up his 4th and 5th gold medals tonight. He just couldn't resist a little self-promotion there. At least he isn't going all '72 Dolphins on us with champagne on ready if Phelps fails to get Gold in any of his events.

Just once, I'd love to see an athlete decades retired say about a young rising star "Yeah, things are a lot harder these days. Sure you have better training and equipment, but the competition is so much better, and the records harder to topple! Back in my day, we had it easier when it was less popular around the world, and the training/scouting wasn't as good as today..."

posted by hincandenza at 12:54 AM on August 13, 2008

You had me until the last sentence, Hal.

I don't think things were easier (swimming-wise, at least) then more than now. Did you see that the pool is nearly 3 feet deeper in China? That certainly makes for less work on the part of the athlete. There is also evidence these new-fangled swimsuits shave time, or else they wouldn't be used. Add in the sponsorship money, and the training advances--both which allow top athletes to spend more time in the pool/training room--and you get professional athletes who are just deferring their salaries until the Games are over. It's not just Phelps who is significantly faster than previous swimmers, after all.

As an aside, I am wondering...

What was Mark Spitz doing when he wasn't training for the Olympics in 1971-2? I don't know. But I guess he had a real job, was in school or something. Today's Olympic athletes are full-time athletes, even if they are technically amateurs.

posted by scully at 07:59 AM on August 13, 2008

Spitz's sense of entitlement is something to behold.

When Spitz wasn't training, he was doing the same thing as Phelps -- college. I think it is harder now for the same reasons that terrapin things it is easier. Everyone spends all their time swimming and have all these technological advantages. Everyone is better. Plus, the depth in the U.S. and around the world is amazing.

posted by bperk at 10:57 AM on August 13, 2008

There's probably more to it than appearances would suggest, but Spitz comes across as pouty. Would it have been a cool thing to have him handing out medals? Sure, but like any honor, you can't help but look like an attention whore if you seek it out. There's also the question of where Spitz has been in the meantime. I've seen JC Killy hand out alpine skiing medals at the Olympics, but I believe he's been at least somewhat active in the Olympic movement or organizing committees or whatnot all along, which may have something to do with it.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 11:53 AM on August 13, 2008

I think I liked it better when all I knew about Spitz was what he'd done.

posted by JJ at 12:49 PM on August 13, 2008

I agree with Spitz that someone should have made an overture to him of some sort. The USOC and sponsors are getting an awful lot of publicity which involves hearing Spitz' name second only to Phelps', and the fact that he is still around leads me to believe it would have been a classy gesture to involve him.

However, he sure comes off like a big time whiner when he reacts like this. Like LBB said, if he had taken an interest or involved himself with USA swimming before August of '08, he probably would be right in the middle of things now. To be able to reap some of those rewards (free flights to China and whatnot) he should have sewn the seeds for years leading up to the Olympics. And his assertion that he could have done anything Phelps is doing now, well, STFU Mark. Maybe he'll break your record, maybe he won't, but your accomplishments of 26 years ago were recognized as great, Phelps'should stand alone in their greatness, too.

posted by tahoemoj at 01:10 PM on August 13, 2008

Mark Spitz trained just as hard, if not more, than Phelps. After winning his seven golds, Spitz came back to the US as a heartthrob that graced several magazine covers and rode the talk show circuit. But there was something amiss. He came off as completely boorish and uncharismatic in interviews (think Pete Sampras, only not humble).

Turns out he had spent so much time honing his craft as a swimmer that he had never been trained around enough peers to fully comprehend social dynamics. It took him a few years of being in the spotlight to figure it out, but it seems the narcissism is still there. Growing pains (in his 20s).

Also of note, the US training in the 70s far surpassed techniques used in other countries. Now you have countries like Australia and France who share the same universal modes of training, and today's field is far more competitive.

posted by charlatan at 02:02 PM on August 13, 2008

And his assertion that he could have done anything Phelps is doing now, well, STFU Mark.

Spitz said that if they had the 50 free in 1972, he would have won that, too. He never said that he could win 8 golds today.

As (still) the only person to win 7 golds in one Olympics, he has earned the right to a little arrogance. I also belive that he is right when he says that he should have been invited by the USOC. Furthermore, I can understand his desire--as the owner for 26 years of a pretty impressive record--to want to see his record stand. He doesn't even go overboard there! He seems to be wishing Phelps well.

I don't have any major problem with anything Spitz has said in this interview.

posted by bender at 04:03 PM on August 13, 2008

People keep saying "the owner for 26 years" of the 7 Gold medal record. Folks... 2008 - 1972 = 36 years. :)

posted by hincandenza at 05:40 PM on August 13, 2008

This is one of those situations where I wish the writer would explain exactly how these thoughts and statements of Spitz were obtained. If a journalist became curious about the absence of Spitz at the Beijing games, then sought him out to inquire about that absence, then I can't argue with anything that Spitz said. Spitz comes off like a crybaby if he's screaming "look at me, look at me, nobody cares..." but if he was sitting at home, anonymously watching the games like the rest of us when he got a call asking for an interview, then I appreciate his candor. Either way, someone somewhere from the USOC or NBC should have reached out to Mark Spitz, and I find it hard to believe that nobody did.

posted by captaincavegirl at 07:38 PM on August 13, 2008

a.Thanks Hal, little brainfart there on the math.

b.Good point, cavegirl. I guess the context of the interview does go a long way to how I feel about it.

posted by tahoemoj at 07:43 PM on August 13, 2008

Spitz was on the Today show this morning (not a bastion of journalism, but whatever) and pretty much said he had been taken out of context and/or misquoted in the reports that had him as pouty. It sounded a bit like damage control, but the main focus of his comments was around heaping praise on today's athletes and Phelps in particular.

I thought he came off pretty good, even with the linked article as background.

posted by johndurkin8 at 09:58 AM on August 14, 2008

The exchange with Phelps on NBC this evening was gracious on both sides. They both know that elite swimmers have the potential to get bigger medal hauls. They both know that the difference between gold and nada is tiny. They both know that the limelight is relatively fleeting. That was the first time I'd seen Spitz without the porn star tache and seven golds around his neck. 1972 was before I was born, and he was just a trivia answer and a photograph, as if he'd vanished from the earth some time in the late 70s. I think that may have carried over to some extent for USOC and NBC.

Turns out he had spent so much time honing his craft as a swimmer that he had never been trained around enough peers to fully comprehend social dynamics.

I've been around a few highly-ranked swimmers. Focused? Yeah. Charismatic? Generally not. It comes with the territory.

posted by etagloh at 08:37 AM on August 16, 2008

Spitz had nothing but praise and admiration for MP during his Today show interview. It seems like it is a lot more fun to bash someone when they may have been misquoted or misrepresented, rather than give credit when they heap praise. I didn't see the 'damage control' aspect of his interview. Maybe I am wrong (It wouldn't be the first time, even this week). Feel completely free to contradict me as well for supporting a great American althete like Mark Spitz for having the wherewithall to answer directed quesions. Yeah, he really ripped MP in his original interview...NOT

posted by knowsalittle at 07:30 AM on August 17, 2008

Yeah, I finally saw the Spitz/Phelps interview with Costas that I had on DVR, last night. Spitz was nothing but effusive in his compliments and congratulations. Seems we may have misjudged him; if anything I thought Phelps (admittedly having been somewhat distracted I'm sure having just won by 1/100th of a second) wasn't as gracious as he could be about the praise he was getting.

So... I was wrong apparently, and he probably was misquoted/taken out of context. He certainly came across as gracious and congratulatory, even going so far as to explicitly say that Phelps was probably a better swimmer- but still having enough competitive spirit to say "Champions figure out how to beat their competition", which explains Spitz and Phelps doing what they do. :)

Mea culpa, and well done Mark Spitz. As Costas said, a side benefit of the Phelps story is getting to hear a little more about a guy whose amazing accomplishments happened before many of us were born.

posted by hincandenza at 06:17 PM on August 17, 2008

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