This Day in Jewish History

1972: Swimmer Mark Spitz Sets Olympic Gold Record

American swimmer Mark Spitz won a 7th gold at the 1972 Olympics, setting a 36-year record before getting flown out of Germany after the Munich massacre.

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On September 4, 1972, 22-year-old American swimmer Mark Spitz won a seventh gold medal at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, swimming the third leg (butterfly) in mens 4x100 medley relay. With that victory, Spit set a record for gold that stood for 36 years, until broken by Michael Phelps. Early the following morning, Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli delegation to the games, holding 11 of them hostage and later killing them, during a botched rescue attempt by Germany police. As the most visible Jewish athlete at the competition, Spitz soon found himself spirited off to the airport and flown out of the country, for his own safety, in the event that other attacks were in the offing.

Mark Spitz was born in Modesto, California, on February 10, 1950, the oldest of three children to Arnold and Lenore Smith Spitz. Arnold was the son of a Hungarian-born Jew who had owned a chicken farm in nearby Turlock. The family was lower-middle class, and as soon as Mark began to show a talent for swimming, he was pushed to go to great lengths to develop his potential. According to Richard J. Foster, author of an official Spitz biography, Arnold Spitz taught his son that “swimming isn’t everything; winning is.”

Mark took the lesson to heart, and both his and his family’s lives were structured around his training. His bar mitzvah lessons were limited to weekends when they began to interfere with workouts, and when necessary, the family moved so that Mark could be closer to his coach, George Haines, in Santa Clara.

In 1965, at age 15, Spitz attended his first international competition, the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, where he won four gold medals and was dubbed the outstanding athlete. But, as Judith Shulevitz describes, in an essay about the swimmer in last year’s “Jewish Jocks,” a collection of biographical sketches by different writers, “even as Spitz was becoming known worldwide, he was also becoming the least popular kid in his swim club.” He was unsubtle about his desire to win, and he was a braggart. He also was younger than nearly all his teammates, and the fact that he skipped practices didn’t stop him from beating the competition.

It was only when Spitz got to college that he met a coach who was able not only to hone his technique to perfection, but also to provide him with the equivalent of finishing school to make him into something of a mensch. By then, he had already been to his first Olympic Games, the 1968 Olympiad in Mexico City, where his win of two gold medals, one silver and one bronze seemed like a failure, since he boasted before the games that he would bring home five first places medals.

Spitz attended Indiana University, a collegiate swimming power, and there he came under the tutelage of James “Doc” Counsilman. Counsilman applied technology to study and improve every aspect of his swimmers’ techniques, but as he said about Spitz, the swimmer’s technique was already perfect; what he had to change was his psyche. As Shulevitz writes, “what Counsilman really did is save Spitz from Spitz.”

Indiana’s version of Prof. Henry Higgins worked hard to develop mutually supportive relationships among his team’s swimmers, and he worked with Spitz to get him to tone down his arrogance. By the time he arrived in Munich, Mark Spitz had been transformed into something of a gentleman, with only the external mark of a chevron mustache present as a sign of defiance. Other swimmers were shaving their body hair to trim milliseconds off their times, apparently not a contingency Spitz needed to worry about. When a Russian coach asked Spitz if the mustache didn’t slow him down, the swimmer recounted to Time Magazine many years later, “I said, ‘No, as a matter of fact, it deflects water from my mouth, allows my rear end to rise, and make me bullet shaped in the water.’… He’s translating as fast as he can for the other coaches, and the following year every Russian male swimmer had a mustache.”

Not only did Spitz win seven gold medals – in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle, 100- and 200-meter butterfly, and in three relay events – but he also broke world records in each of those events. He competed in one of the relay events, the 4x200 freestyle, a mere hour after winning the gold in the 100-meter butterfly.

In a 2002 interview with SwimmingWorld magazine, Spitz described in detail how he heard about the Munich kidnapping that later turned into a massacre, and what then transpired. His plan had been to appear at a press conference that morning, before heading off to Stuttgart, where Mercedes-Benz was to present him with a new 450SL. “Then we were to drive to Frankfurt and take a flight to Chicago, where I would drive the car to Indianapolis. I was already 2-1/2 weeks late for dental school.”

The visit to Mercedes was canceled, and by that evening, Spitz was on a plane heading west. But before returning to the U.S., he stopped in the United Kingdom. He had already committed to – and been paid $50,000 for – a photo shoot for the German magazine Der Stern, which also became a poster, posing with his seven gold medals, and it was now decided to move the venue to London.

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“The whole thing took on a surreal quality,” Spitz told SwimmingWorld. “On Monday night I finished my last event in Munich. On Tuesday morning I learned the Israelis had been taken hostage. By Tuesday night I was in London. And on Wednesday morning I was in Sacramento, sitting in my living room like Johnny Lunchbucket, watching the Olympics on TV, as if I had never been there. The only difference was that I had two Secret Service guards for a week outside my home.

“A few days later I was in Temple for a Rosh Hashanah service, sitting next to Governor [Ronald] Reagan. That’s when the significance of the whole sequence of events really hit me.”

Mark Spitz retired from competitive swimming with the end of the Munich games. He canceled his plans to study dentistry, and devoted his energies to the marketing of his name and image. He signed with William Morris, and took some acting roles, but that clearly wasn’t his forte. In the first two years after the games, he is said to have earned some $7 million from product endorsements. The poster that came out of the London photo shoot was the world’s top best-seller for several years, until the release of a poster with Farrah Fawcett in a swimsuit.

He owned a real estate company in Beverly Hills for some time, and today makes a living as an inspirational speaker and corporate spokesman. His official website also sells original Mark Spitz acrylic paintings – abstract works that are something of a cross between Joan Miro and Jackson Pollock, combined with the color sensibility of Leroy Neiman.

Spitz has been married to his wife, Suzy, since 1973. They have two sons, Matthew and Justin. Justin is entering his senior year at Stanford, where he has been a member of the swim team.