Monday, August 11, 2008

Spitz Snubbed by Olympic Organizers, TV Networks

If Michael Phelps wins a record eight Olympic gold medals in swimming, Mark Spitz will not be in Beijing to congratulate him. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spitz not only won seven gold medals in swimming but he (and his teammates in three relay events) set seven world records, a remarkable display of dominance that will likely never be equaled, not even by Phelps. Spitz' record has already lasted 36 years, longer than such iconic standards as Babe Ruth's single season mark of 60 home runs (34 years, broken by Roger Maris) and Jim Brown's career rushing total of 12,312 yards (19 years, broken by Walter Payton). It would only be natural to assume that Spitz would be at the Olympics to congratulate Phelps and possibly award him his final medal if Phelps breaks the record. However, Spitz is understandably disappointed that he was not invited to the Olympics by the organizers, FINA (the international body that governs swimming) or the television networks: "I never got invited. You don't go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am. I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That's almost demeaning to me. It is not almost--it is."

Spitz adds, "They voted me one of the top five Olympians in all time. Some of them are dead. But they invited the other ones to go to the Olympics, but not me. Yes, I am a bit upset about it."

Spitz believes that Phelps will break his record, noting, "He's almost identical to me. He's a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did. He reminds me of myself." It is worth noting, though, that Spitz did not have an opportunity to compete in eight events: "If they had the 50m freestyle back then, which they do now, I probably would have won that too."

I don't know if Spitz was deliberately snubbed for some reason or if this was just a ridiculous bureaucratic oversight but whoever was responsible for this decision should be ashamed. It is important to recognize and embrace history. Mark Spitz should be given a place of honor at the Beijing Olympics.


Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

phelps wiill beat his record he a better swimmer tan spitz.

David Friedman said...


Have you even seen Spitz swim or do you know anything about how far ahead of the rest of his competition he was?

Spitz not only won a gold medal in seven events but he set seven world records. Phelps may win seven or eight golds but I doubt that he will set seven or eight world records while doing so.

Spitz' 1972 record (seven golds plus seven world records) is one of the greatest achievements in sports history and that is why the mark has already stood for 36 years.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that most of the sports press is completely unable to make sense of any achievement without bogging it down with superlatives. So we have to deal with a new GOAT discussion almost on a daily basis. Now we have "the greatest olympian" distinction. To me, it sounds much like "the greatest human being"; an empty/meaningless notion barring further qualification, which would inevitably take it down a notch to something like "the greatest swimmer ever". Even that, as David argues in his Pantheon series and elsewhere, is hard to claim and even harder to establish for one person over the history of any sport.

I think this obsession with superlatives stems both from the ineptitude of the "so-called experts", as David likes to put it, who cannot (bother to) analyze what they see, and from the tacit, and probably correct, belief in the media that most people are really not interested in sports per se but rather in "greatness" and that therefore ratings of any sporting event would correlate directly with the alleged trans-era greatness of the competitors.

For my part, I would love to see a thorough discussion of the technologies involved both in the swimming suits and in the construction of the pools and of how (much) these factors concretely influence the speed of a swim. There is no doubt that Phelps is the dominant swimmer of our era and that, even without the aforementioned technological advances, there would have been some improvement in record times due to better knowledge of the human body, better nutrition, better training regimen, and so on. But, I have to say, the world record business in swimming is a joke right now. I'd rather have Phelps swim with a Spitz speedo (and a Spitz 'tache if possible) and take the ensuing time as the world record. That way we could have something of a measuring stick to compare the athletic achievements of different eras (of course factoring in the improvements I mentioned above). Right now, the swimmers, who are fortunate enough to be in their primes when the most recent speedo "gadget" comes out, own the records. Thus any record in swimming today is bereft of any meaning beyond that of merely charting the improvement of 3 or 4 contemporary athletes in that race. We have the meets, world championships and the olympics to keep track of that. It seems rather quaint, at least to me, that a world record is so cheap and transient. My point is not to depreciate Phelps, whom I adore as much as the next guy does. I hope that is clear.

David, I have two things that I'd like to read your thoughts on:

1. Right now, I live in Germany without a Tv so, thanks to NBC's efforts, I have to follow the Olympics mostly through what other people write on it. I therefore had the mishap of reading one of Forde's articles on Phelps. This one:

There he says:

"And see ya later, Mark Spitz. Here's a hankie. Now stop crying about nobody flying your smug self over here. History is unfolding just fine without you."

What do you think about this? You always approach your elder interviewees with well-deserved reverence. You don't seem to think "oh, Oscar Robertson doesn't have suction in the NBA anymore so I can say anything about/around him but I should be careful about/around Carmelo". How do you see this? Am I missing something? Are Forde's remarks extraordinary in their audacity or are they commonplace in sports journalism in the States today?

2. What do you think about the "photo scandal" of the Spanish basketball team? I wouldn't even say that it is blown out of proportion, there is absolutely nothing there to blow out of proportion. I cannot for the life of me see the racism in their gesture. The slanted eye (in itself) is neither a racist slur nor a stereotype. It is a physical fact about most eastern asian people. And in the context of that picture, the gesture says, at least to me, "we are the same" - "we are not that different". A positive message, that is. The "scandal" says, I believe, more about the anglo-american media, or those societies in general, than the spanish one. The former, cloaked in their politically correct self-righteousness, seems to be so taken with its history and problem with racism that it reflects it back on everyone else. I am not saying that racism is a phenomenon peculiar to the States or that there is no such thing in Spain; but I am honestly unable to interpret this situation in any way charitable to the spin Yahoo is giving it.

David Friedman said...


I agree with you that it is impossible--and pointless--to try to ascertain who is the "greatest Olympian." Phelps is clearly the greatest male swimmer of the present era and no more than that should or needs to be said.

I also agree that world records do not seem to be as meaningful as they once were because now they are falling left and right. I don't know enough about elite level swimming to know how much of this is because of the suit, how much is because of modern training methods and whether or not some or all of these swimmers are taking performance enhancers that cannot be detected by current testing methods (keep in mind that Marion Jones passed every drug test and her doping was only discovered through other means). I am by no means accusing any of the swimmers of cheating but I am simply stating the obvious (or what should be obvious): no one can honestly say whether they are cheating or not.

I read Forde's article and thought that his comment about Spitz was extremely ill-considered. As far as I know, Spitz has never badmouthed Phelps and Spitz wanted to go to the Games to personally congratulate Phelps in the event that Phelps does break his record. Sadly, I don't think that Forde's comment is unusual in today's mainstream media.

Regardless of what the "physical facts" are about how some people look, I think that at the very least it is extremely poor judgment to pose for the kind of picture that the Spanish team did. They are not standup comedians, so even if this was just an innocent attempt at humor that would have been best left to the professional comedians. I don't know whose idea it was or what the thought process was, so I don't know if this was racist, a poor attempt at humor or something else. That is why I did not run off half cocked and write about it: I don't know the full story and, at the moment, I don't have a way to obtain the full story (since all of the principals are in Beijing and I do not have access to them).

Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

8 gold 7 world records maybe the greatest olympian ever 14 gold medal in career thats mark spitz wait david that is micheal phelps the best swimmer ever and maybe olympian every swimming observer said he was the best and he is so far ahead of the field it was a joke so like i said he would break his record and was a better swimmer.

David Friedman said...


This whole "greatest Olympian ever" business is a little ridiculous. Phelps may be the most decorated Olympian but how can one compare swimming medals to medals in other sports? Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Al Oerter also deserve to be in "greatest Olympian ever" discussions, to name just three worthy candidates.

Even comparing Phelps to Spitz is difficult because their eras are completely different. Phelps benefits from new swimsuit technology, stroke by stroke computer analysis of his swims, etc. Who can say what would happen if they met each other in the pool in their primes under equal conditions? Phelps is clearly the greatest swimmer now. Why isn't it enough to say that? Why does every accomplishment have to be accompanied by so much hype?

By the way, Spitz went 7 for 7 in terms of world records, while Phelps went 7 for 8; Spitz likely would have won an eighth event at that time if it had been on his schedule. Spitz extended the record from four swimming golds in one Olympics to seven, a greater improvement than what Phelps did. Spitz' mark lasted for 36 years. People thought that Michael Johnson's record would last for decades but it only survived 12 years.

madnice said...

Phelps didnt even swim in the fastest race.