A pack of French journalists tried to follow Mark Spitz (see cover) into a shower in Munich's Olympic Schwimmhalle the other afternoon, but the American swimmer managed to close the door just ahead of his pursuers, demonstrating that he is capable of moving fast on land, too. Spitz also proved elusive when neither he nor any of his late-sleeping teammates arrived on schedule at a morning press conference for the U.S. swim team, leaving it to the American coaches, themselves a few minutes tardy, to pacify the swarm of reporters.
The coaches were willing, but they suffered from the shared disadvantage of not being Mark Andrew Spitz. "We came here to see Mr. Spitz," an Australian reporter said with annoyance, and it was easy to appreciate the importance he attached to the mission. Mark Spitz is questing for seven Olympic gold medals—four in individual races and three in relays—and if his efforts come close to that high aim he will be one of the grandest of all Olympic heroes. It was, furthermore, ironic that Spitz, a Jew, should be seeking so lofty a triumph at the first Olympics held on German soil since the Nazi-tainted games of 1936 in Berlin.
Spitz' credentials include world records in each of the four individual events—the 100 and 200 meters in both freestyle and butterfly—he is swimming in Munich, but there remained the question, essentially the same one asked about Tom Eagleton, of whether he was psychologically fit for the job. There were memories of the Mexico Games of 1968 when Spitz freely talked about winning as many as six gold medals but then, suffering from turista, tonsilitis and an Olympic-size case of the jitters, ended with only two golds (both won in relays) plus a silver and a bronze for finishing second and third in individual races. It was a medal haul that would have been prodigious for almost anybody else, but for Spitz it was failure.
In Munich, Spitz began splendidly, winning the 200 butterfly and anchoring the 400 freestyle relay, both in world-record time, but the way ahead was difficult. His most obvious rival was Australia's Mike Wenden, a bank personnel officer who has become a husband and father since winning the 100 and 200 freestyle in Mexico. If Spitz could hold off Wenden and other challengers, his life could change overnight. He might not follow Johnny Weissmuller into Tarzan's tree, but his slender, walnut-brown good looks, enhanced by emerald-green eyes and a devilish mustache, would put his box-office appeal up there with Jean-Claude Killy or Peggy Fleming any day. After the Games, Spitz is supposed to enroll in Indiana University's dental school, but when talk turned to the temptations of Hollywood, he did nothing to discourage it. "I suppose I could always postpone dental school for a year," he said. "If everything goes the way I plan this week, I may need a bodyguard."
September 3, 1972
Not long ago such remarks would have been interpreted as cockiness, but Spitz is no doubt right when he says, "Now that I'm a veteran, people have learned to accept me the way I am." At 22, his 6' frame, which formerly seemed like a rubber band snapping its way through the water, has fleshed out to a supple 170 pounds, and his personality has added dimension, too. He no longer falls so strongly under the influence of his father, an aggressive man who placed great premium on winning. Mark's teammates at Sacramento's Arden Hills Swim Club were surprised—and so, doubtlessly, was Arnold Spitz—when the son upbraided the father at poolside this summer for what Mark considered some excessive parental interference in the swimming program of his younger sister, Nancy.
But it would be a mistake to overstate the changes in Mark Spitz, for he was probably never as much of a spoiled brat as he was pictured, nor could he be passed off today as altogether lovable. His only real sin in Mexico City was his brutal honesty. "Mark said he thought he'd win his races, and he was wrong," says Sherm Chavoor, who trains Spitz at Arden Hills and now coaches the Olympic women's team. "It's as simple as that." Spitz has retained his honesty but, benefiting from experience, he was not as eager before Munich—publicly anyway—to make any Mexico-like predictions of total victory.
Certainly it was a more circumspect Mark Spitz who, along with a few other U.S. swimmers, finally showed up 40 minutes late to join the coaches at the press conference in the Schwimmhalle. "I swam well at the Olympic Trials in Chicago," Spitz said as Japanese cameramen swooped in around him. "If I do my best here..." he started to say and then caught himself. Instead, he said simply, "I'm prepared." Later, sitting in his room in the Olympic Village, his stockinged feet propped on a radiator, Spitz said, "If this were '68, I probably would've told those reporters, "The competition isn't as strong in the 100 fly as in the freestyles." And you know what the headlines would have said? They would have said Mark Spitz predicts victory in the 100 fly."
Spitz was also getting along better with his Olympic teammates. He was 18 in Mexico, just out of high school, and the older U.S. swimmers, instead of befriending him, dismissed him as too self-centered. "This is a much closer-knit group," Spitz said last week. He went off one day with teammate Gary Hall to watch the burghers of Munich downing their morning beer at the Hofbr√§uhaus ("It isn't even noon yet!"), to take in one of the city's plentiful sex bazaars ("Do you believe this place?") and to wander through the village with other U.S. swimmers, turning a long, slow eye on every pretty skirt that fluttered by. Visiting the Olympic Village showrooms of athletic-shoe manufacturers, he was careful to take along lesser-known teammates, who usually ended up getting free shoes. "When you walk in with Mark Spitz," explained Steve Furniss, "you can bet they'll wait on you."
At other times, though, Spitz could be thoughtlessly harsh. When word reached him that teammate Steve Genter, a rival in the 200 freestyle with whom he had become friendly in recent weeks, had suffered a collapsed lung that would almost certainly diminish his performance at the Games, Spitz said, "This may sound terrible, but now I don't have to worry about him." More understandable was his occasional brusqueness to some of the 4,000 newsmen whose requests for "just a five-minute interview" would have kept him busy, had all been granted, through the '76 Games in Montreal.
Even at that, Spitz was far more accessible to reporters and autograph hunters than Shane Gould, the Australian schoolgirl with whom he shares the swimming limelight. Gould is also attempting seven races, having added the 200 individual medley to the four freestyles and two relays she originally planned on. She won the medley, and her first gold, in world-record time on Monday. Not yet 16, Gould seemed remarkably unaffected by Olympic pressures, spending most of her spare time reading Sherlock Holmes. "It's strange," she said last week, "but I'm not even excited yet."
Her casual air was not always shared by Australian officials, who hovered around her, allowing her to speak only to chosen newsmen, then scrupulously monitoring every word to guard against anybody asking a meaningful question. Those arrangements were frustrated, however, when Shane, who has studied German in high school, chatted charmingly in that language with local reporters while her Aussie chaperone, helplessly monolingual, sat gloomily by. In the dining room, Shane met some rival U.S. freestylers but was spared the sight of the T shirts owned by the U.S. women, which were imprinted ALL THAT GLITTERS IS NOT GOULD. Two of the Americans, Jenny Kemp and Keena Rothhammer, were sleeping in the T shirts, but they obeyed orders to refrain from wearing them in public, for fear "that it might make Shane mad."
If either Gould or Spitz goes home with even five golds, it will equal Paavo Nurmi's 1924 record for the biggest hoard in a single Olympics. The fact that both went into the games with a chance to win seven medals lent fuel to a proposal being considered by the International Olympic Committee to eliminate eight events from swimming competition in the future, the rationale being that some races involved virtual duplication of skills.
The idea was supported by the Soviet Union, a nation of modest aquatic achievement, and opposed by the sport's superpowers, Australia and the U.S. It was true that when compared to, say, track and field, the talent in swimming did seem rather concentrated. For example, only four U.S. track athletes were entered in two individual events. But 19 American swimmers were in at least two individual events, five were in three, and Spitz was in four. And this did not include the relay races.
None of this is to deny the genuine talents of Spitz, who grew up trying to cope with a precocity that produced 10 world records before he had enrolled in college. Although his current records are in freestyle sprints and butterfly, he showed his earliest promise as a distance swimmer, coming within two-tenths of a second of the 1,500-meter record when he was 16. At an exhibition meet two weeks ago at the U.S. pre-Olympic training camp, he entered the 50-yard backstroke as a lark and defeated Mitch Ivey and Mike Stamm, the leading American backstrokers. He is weakest in the breaststroke, in which he merely made high school All-America.
By contrast with Australia's Wenden, a bigger man who churns through the water, Spitz seems to glide with great economy. Long of upper arm and curiously possessed of the ability to flex his legs forward at the knees, Spitz is one of those rare swimmers—Shane Gould is another—who inspires coaches to talk themselves silly about man's harmony with the elements. "Mark's so loose and long-muscled," Chavoor says. "The way he slips through the water is simply mystifying."
Spitz has managed to stay on top of his sport for five years now, and his determination has been equally evident outside the pool. When he enrolled at Indiana, detractors predicted he would not get along with his new teammates, yet he adjusted well enough, with the help of his coach, James E. (Doc) Counsilman, to be elected a co-captain of last season's team. When Spitz decided at 17 that he was meant to fix teeth in this life, the same people claimed that he lacked the requisite intelligence. He compiled a respectable 2.7 grade point average in college, and his acceptance at dental school came through the same day he received the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete.
With the notable exception of Mexico, Spitz has backed up his brashest pronouncements with deeds. When Frank Heckl of USC won six gold medals at last year's Pan-American Games, Spitz, who along with other U.S. stars had passed up the competition, scoffed. "They threw a war and nobody came," he said. He had withering words, too, for University of Tennessee freestyler Dave Edgar, to whom he regularly lost at NCAA meets largely because Edgar is strong on turns, which take on greater importance in short-course college pools than in 50-meter Olympic facilities. Asked about Edgar's prospects at the Olympic Trials in Chicago, Spitz said, "This is swimming, not turns." Heckl failed to make the U.S. team, and Edgar, though qualifying for Munich in the 100 butterfly and the 400 freestyle relay, lost to Spitz in two events.
As Olympic teammates, Edgar and Spitz have since become friendly, and the Tennessee star says, "I like Mark. He talks a lot about himself, but how can you blame him? That's all people ever asked him." Somewhat closer was Spitz' relationship with his old Indiana teammate, Gary Hall. Spitz professes to be pained because Hall receives less publicity than himself, and when somebody asked him for an autograph and then tried to use Hall's back as a writing board, Spitz balked. "Gary must've really liked that" he said indignantly later on.
Hall, for his part, took a protective attitude toward Spitz. "Mark says what he means, and I respect that," he said. "Of course, sometimes he ought to watch who he says it to." Walking in the Olympic Village, the two swimmers passed Tim Dement, the boxer who made the U.S. team after defeating convict Bobby Hunter. Spitz, who felt strongly that Hunter should not have been allowed in the Olympics in any case, cried out, "I ought to kiss that guy." This earned a gentle reprimand from Hall, who said, "Now, Mark...." Later, as they took in other Olympic sights, including the giant tent roof, the artificial lake and the usual passing procession of M√§dchen, Spitz said excitedly. "God, this place is like Disneyland! I'm going bananas here." Hall laughed and said, "Yeah, but we've got to remember what we're here for."
Spitz was only slightly more subdued when, suffering from a mild cold, he went for dinner at Humplmayr, a well-known Munich restaurant, with Chavoor and Peter Daland, the U.S. men's coach. Spitz talked about his affliction much of the evening. "I wonder whether I'm ever going to drop this stupid cold," he said at one point. Later he asked, "Why am I so sleepy? Do you think it's the cold?" At another moment, addressing Chavoor, he said, "You know something about those antibiotics I took? They made me dizzy."
Chavoor did not look up from his meal. "Dizzier," he said.
Spitz readily allows that he talks a great deal about himself, explaining, "I just get all wound up sometimes. I get hyper." He also agrees with Chavoor that he is something of a hypochondriac, though he reported his cold completely cured by Saturday. "I knew if I went to a doctor he'd tell me the cold was nothing to worry about, but it's a way of getting fussed over and coddled, I guess."
As he set out on his pursuit of gold, Spitz was also assured of being fussed over in Munich by the various men who have helped mold him into the champion swimmer—and the complex human being—he has become. Chavoor was on hand for advice and comfort, and so, of course, was Daland, officially in charge of Spitz' Olympic training program. Into Munich, meanwhile, came both Counsilman and Arnold Spitz. Then there was George Haines, coach of the Santa Clara Swim Club, who trained Mark until he fell out with the Spitz family soon after the '68 Olympics. Haines was in Munich as the assistant women's coach, and while the two are not close, Spitz declined to say anything critical about his former coach. "Why should I?" he demanded, with characteristic bluntness. "George gave me my foundation as a swimmer." Win or lose in Munich, Mark Spitz has achieved enough already to assure everybody a fair share of credit.