When Mark Spitz marched into history

50th Munich Games: When Mark Spitz made history with his seven-gold performance

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympics, which featured Mark Spitz and one of the most iconic performances the sport has ever seen.

Mark Spitz did not arrive in Munich in 1972 as the best swimmer in the world. Instead, he came into the 1972 Olympics a week away from being remembered as an Olympic failure.

Spitz’s expectations in Munich were tempered by what was widely regarded as a disastrous performance in Mexico City in 1968. Spitz entered that Olympics with a world-record 10 swims and a bold prediction that he could win six medals in his first Olympics. organized by the global south. .

The combination of altitude and an undefeated American field destroyed any arrogance he may have entered with. Spitz left Mexico City with four medals. But only two were gold, and both were on nearly unbeatable American relays.

Individually, he won a bronze and a silver. The first came in the 100 freestyle, but it was the second that began the unraveling of his Olympics: In the 100 butterfly, an event in which Spitz held the world record, he was beaten by another American. Doug Russellwhich he had dominated in domestic competition.

So shocked was Spitz by his twist of fate that he finished last in the final of the 200 butterfly, an event in which he held the world record.

Photo courtesy: ISHOF Archive

“I’ve had a tough time since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where I was expected to win a lot of gold medals,” Spitz said. “And if I just look at my performance to win two golds, one silver and one bronze, I mean it’s pretty remarkable. But the problem was, I didn’t win a gold medal in two events where I held a world record. And that was just the reason that I basically had this fire in my system to be able to actually want to go for another four years. I kind of found it hard to train and train. But I had a focus and the focus was to do the best I could.”

Not even out of high school, Spitz was forced to recalibrate his approach for the upcoming Olympics.

Few have ever done such a thing.

What Spitz accomplished in Munich stands as a pillar of competitive swimming history. He went 7-for-7 in gold medals at the 1972 Olympics: 100 free, 200 free, 100 fly, 200 fly and all three relays. All seven resulted in world records.

Only 100 free was remotely close. Spitz already held the world record in this race and lowered it to 51.22 seconds. But he faced a battle from his compatriot Jerry Heidenreich, who won the silver medal in 51.65. 200 free was placed in almost a second. 100 fly in which he jumped in 54.27, one second ahead of the Canadian Bruce Robertson. Distance with his fellow Indiana Hoosier Gary Hall Sr. in the 200 fly was more than two seconds. This was his first race in Munich and a definitive statement that 1972 would be different from four years earlier.

In the relay, no one stood a chance against the American jumper, the Soviet Union coming closest by a margin of 3.3 seconds over the 400m freestyle.

“Every day that I swam and won a gold medal, it was like an embarrassing brick falling off the cart,” Spitz said. “And so, I felt like I was actually doing better. But I was exhausted by the time it came to my final individual event, the 100m freestyle. And I have to say that the last shot I took in the Olympics, I don’t think I could have taken another shot. I was 100 percent until the last shot, and I literally had a drop of gas in my tank at the end of that one. So thank god it’s over.”

Spitz’s Olympic moment was dimmed by the events that clouded the entire Munich Games. A day after the swimming competition ended, a Palestinian militant group kidnapped a group of Israeli athletes and coaches, leading to the deaths of 11 Olympic participants and a West German police officer. As a prominent Jewish athlete, the act of terrorism hit Spitz harder than most.

Despite this pain, the Munich Games remain a poignant memory for Spitz. And its performance, even after it was improved by Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals in 2008 remains a defining moment for the sport.

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