Listen to this article
“Well, I walk every day,” says Mark Spitz, when I ask if he still swims regularly. “It’s good, low-impact exercise. I may swim in the ocean when I’m on vacation, which I love. But you’re talking to someone who swam 26,000 miles over 14 years.”
We are sitting in a coffee shop in Los Angeles and the swimmer, who for more than three decades held the record for the most gold medals - seven - won in a single Olympics, is explaining why he spent years away from the pool after his triumph. The training that culminated with his utter domination of the Munich games was gruelling and repetitive, he says. “There was no professionalism in swimming. You couldn’t make money,” says Spitz, with some regret. He needed to work. “So I stopped swimming. My last event was at Munich.” He was just 22.
The moustache he grew while competing is long gone and his dark hair has greyed. But he still has the broad shoulders of a swimmer and there are occasional flashes of the gleaming smile that beamed from the medal podium.
Winning seven gold medals changed his life and, while he did not strike the endorsement deals of today’s Olympians, it wasn’t a complete financial washout: he was paid $50,000 by Stern magazine to pose for what became a famous picture of him grinning and wearing a pair of stars-and-stripes swimming trunks with seven gold medals around his neck. The image became emblematic, so much so that Michael Phelps copied it after breaking Spitz’s record in 2008.
Spitz’s achievements in Munich came at what he calls “a coming-out party” for the Olympics. “It was the first time it had really been... taped for convenient re-broadcast.” American television audiences were able to tune in and watch the events unfold.
But the games were overshadowed by the massacre of 11 members of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists. “I became part of a news event that was etched into the history of the Games, much more than winning the gold medals,” Spitz says. He is Jewish and there were concerns at the time that he may have been a target. “No one knew what was happening. I was whisked out of Germany immediately and didn’t find out about the Israeli team until I arrived in London.”
It was a traumatic period but his religion and new-found stardom meant he became a figurehead, of sorts. “I became this recognised person who happened to be Jewish. People thought I had the answers to what was going wrong but how would I?” He appeared on the Bob Hope and Sonny and Cher shows and became friendly with Ronald Reagan, then California’s governor.
He had been at dental school before Munich but gave up after the Games. Instead he appeared in several TV commercials, started a property company, and began giving motivational speeches. More recently, he and some partners bought a water bottling business that exports to Africa and the Middle East.
He has no time for sporting bureaucrats – or, “fluttering, flickering, flustering badge-wearers”, as he calls them, and will not be attending the London Games. Surely as one of the great Olympians the IOC would want him at every Games? “That’s a question you need to ask them,” he says coolly. “The only person I know who has been officially been adopted by the Olympic movement is Nadia Comaneci. I’m not sure what the qualifications are… I would be happy to be a part of it but have never been asked.”
Although he swims in the pool less frequently these days, he occasionally swims in a program at UCLA, where people go in lanes depending on their ability. “I might start in a slower lane and within two weeks will have migrated to the fast lane,” he says. “One of the other swimmers once asked a guy in the pool how I was able to do that so quickly. And he said: “Because he’s Mark Spitz.”