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Olympic hero Spitz still making waves at 50

by Dan Moscoe

LONDON — Mark Spitz is widely regarded as the greatest Olympian of all time. The American swimmer captured seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games — still the most ever by an athlete at one Olympics — and broke world-record times in all seven events. Throw in the two golds, a silver and a bronze he won at age 18 four years earlier in Mexico, and it’s hard to deny that Spitz deserves the distinction.

Now a successful businessman three weeks shy of his 50th birthday, Spitz is in London for the World Sports Awards, an Austrian-based non-profit foundation inaugurated in 1999. That year at a ceremony in Vienna to honor the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Spitz was named the top male in the water sports category.

He returned to Europe this week as a member of the voting jury for the World Sports Awards 2000 and the presenter for Male Water Sports Athlete of the Year, one of 15 prizes awarded at gala event Wednesday night at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times on the eve of the show, the loquacious Spitz spoke candidly about a wide range of issues.

As if 11 Olympic medals weren’t enough, it’s mind-boggling to imagine how many more medals Spitz could have piled up had he stuck around for the 1976 Montreal Games. However, as became evident during the course of our conversation, financial considerations have weighed heavily in Spitz’s career moves, and he hung up his Speedo after Munich, a time when the Olympics were strictly “amateur.”

“After I won my seven gold medals and started to take endorsement money and licensing my name, I had to terminate any possibility of ever competing again,” explained Spitz. “I had competed in two Olympics and finished my college scholarship program at Indiana University and that’s an age when most male amateur athletes were retiring. But had the rules been open as they are now I could have continued to compete and make money at the same time. We know now that 22 is nowhere near a swimmer’s peak.”

As it turned out, 1972 was not quite the end of Spitz’s competitive swimming career. Nearly two decades later, he launched a comeback attempt, with the goal of qualifying for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Asked why he returned to the pool, Spitz described how the seed was planted.

“I was sitting in a meeting one day in 1989, and someone said, ‘You ought to make a comeback.’ I go, ‘Yeah right, what am I going to do?’ Then he explained to me that he had a friend competing in masters swimming — guys 25 and all the way up to 100 competing in their own age categories. He explained that guys my age, which was 39 at the time, were actually swimming faster times than they did in their 20s.

“Then he mentioned that only two guys had ever swum faster than my best 100-meter butterfly time, and both of them were retired. So if I could go back and swim the same time I did in my 20s, I might be a winner.

“It wasn’t until a few months later that I started to seriously think about it when I mentioned it to a gentleman and he said, ‘You know, that might be worth a million bucks for some company to get involved with.’ And all of a sudden there was a company (Clairol hair coloring) offering me a seven-figure sponsorship deal. Then other things fell into place and it was actually an economic decision.”

Spitz wound up falling short of making it to the highly competitive U.S. Olympic trials but said it was a good experience trying. Were Spitz from an obscure African nation, like Eric “The Eel” Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea, he certainly would have qualified for the 1992 Olympics. When asked about Moussambani, who gained attention in Sydney 2000 with a Games record-slowest time in the 100-meter freestyle, Spitz said he had no qualms about the lack of minimum requirements for Olympic swimming.

“I think that there’s a place for that because it doesn’t happen too often. I don’t think it’s a disgrace to swimming. I think it lives up to the Olympic ideal that it’s not a matter of whether you win or lose, but the idea that you compete. But that girl from the same country (Paula “The Trawler” Barila Bolopa) almost drowned (in the 50-meter freestyle “sprint,” where her time was 40 seconds slower than gold-medalist Inge de Bruijn).”

While the Eel and the Trawler battled to stay afloat in their Sydney sideshows, real swimmers were smashing world records at a dizzying rate. Spitz said he didn’t think the bodysuits now in vogue have anything to do with with the drastically improving times. When asked what he thought the main reason was, there was a pause before I suggested a couple of possibilities: Training techniques? Drugs?

“Both of the above,” answered Spitz after another pause. “There’s a lot of speculation . . . I was in Sydney and I watched the swimming every day. The fact is, the International Olympic Committee’s test is accurate, but they don’t test for everything they could test for. And therein lies the problem.

“The IOC wants the major athletes to slip through the cracks with the drug testing so that it doesn’t create controversy and interfere with television ratings. . . . This is all about money.”

Besides Spitz’s Herculean effort, the 1972 Munich Games will be remembered for a terrorist incident in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered. There was concern that Spitz, also Jewish, might be targeted, and he was whisked out of Germany under heavy security before the completion of the Games.

“The swimming events were totally completed, so it didn’t affect the swimmers,” recalled Spitz. “From a security point of view, the Olympics have been affected by that. The precautions that they take and the security everyone has to go through is all an effect of that. “

The biggest change Spitz sees between the Olympics then and now is the opening of the Games to professionals.

“When I was in the Olympics, I made the team and the U.S. paid my expenses in training camp and my flight to Munich and that was it. I stayed in the Olympic Village — no one even thought of staying at a hotel. We didn’t have any money. Now the athletes have their attorneys, agents, strategists, publicists, trainers, coaches. There are whole entourages that float around the top athletes. I think it’s easier to see the president of the United States than it is to see an athlete during the Olympic Games. You can’t find them anywhere because they’re secretly housed all over the city.”

While Spitz missed the boat of athletes getting rich while competing, he’s done quite well for himself in the business world. He started up a phone card company that became the largest in America before selling out to AT&T two years ago, a venture Spitz called “a very profitable experience.” Now living in Los Angeles, he’s involved in an Internet start-up business and gives motivational speeches around the world.