Saturday, September 4, 2010

September 4, 1972: Seven for Spitz

MUNICH, West Germany - When Michael Phelps was trying to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics, he was trying to top the performance of one man. Mark Spitz went into the 1972 Olympics in Munich with the goal of going six-for-six, six gold medals in a single Olympics.

Spitz was already relatively famous, having won four medals, including two gold, in the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, but the goal of six medals seemed ambitious nonetheless.

First up were the 200 butterfly and the 4x100 freestyle relay on August 28; Spitz won gold in both, just as he did August 29 in the 200 freestyle. In all three, he set a new world record. Two more events, two more golds and two more world records on August 31: the 100 butterfly and the 4x200 freestyle. He had five gold medals - and five world records - in four days, and he now had a break for a few days before his next final.

Here, Spitz faced a dilemma. He had planned to make the 4x100 medley relay his sixth event, but he was looking at the 100 freestyle final in between there. He had a unique chance to increase his goal, to make it seven-for-seven rather than six-for-six. But he was nervous. He wasn't great at the 100 free, and he was worried about not winning gold. In his words, "If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be a failure."

Well, it was close, but Spitz won the 100 by a half-stroke, setting another record in the process. He had achieved his goal, and he still had one more event to go. The 4x100 medley relay final, on September 4, turned out to be a bit anticlimactic, as the U.S. team won easily in another world record time. But Spitz had done it, had met and even exceeded his impossible goal.

While Spitz became an instant celebrity, his celebration was short-lived. The next day, a Palestinian group broke into Olympic Village and took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. In the tension and chaos that followed, which included all 11 hostages dying, Spitz was evacuated from Munich. It was feared that as a Jew, he would be another high-profile target for the terrorists. In what should have been a time for him to celebrate his greatest athletic achievement, he was instead whisked away in secrecy for his own safety.

Fortunately, nobody forgot about Spitz's achievements. While the first thing most people remember about the 1972 Olympics is the terrorist attack, the second thing is usually Mark Spitz and his seven gold medals.

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