The record-breaking swimmer with seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics: Who is Mark Spitz?

When all competitions were completed on September 4, 1972, Mark managed to win the gold medal in seven of the seven races he participated in. Moreover, he reached the world record in all of these. There was only one thing left to do from now on: Celebrate! But...

By Stephen McWright Published on 9 Temmuz 2024 : 21:41.
The record-breaking swimmer with seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics: Who is Mark Spitz?

On the morning of September 5, 1972, the world woke up to the hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics. At 04:30, Palestinian militants affiliated with the "Black September" organization raided the apartment where Israeli athletes were staying. Athlete Yossef Romano and coach Moshe Weinberg, who tried to resist the raid, were shot and killed. Another Israeli athlete, Shaul Ladany, remembers that morning as follows:

“When I was in the army, I was an artillery officer. That's why I'm a heavy sleeper. I didn't hear anything. My roommate came and woke me up. 'They shot Weinberg. 'He's dead.' he said. Weinberg and I stayed in the same room at the 1968 Olympics. He was a very funny person. But this wasn't a funny situation at all.”

Mark Andrew Spitz (born February 10, 1950) is an American former competitive swimmer and nine-time Olympic champion. He was the most successful athlete at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, winning seven gold medals, each in world-record time. This achievement set a record that lasted for 36 years, until it was surpassed by fellow American Michael Phelps, who won eight golds at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, though Phelps, like Spitz, set seven world records.

Ladany was saved because he was in another room. However, the militants took a total of nine Israelis hostage, including seven athletes and two coaches. After a while, the militants conveyed their demands to the authorities:

“The 234 prisoners in Israeli prisons and the leaders of the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof), Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, should be released immediately.”

While all this was going on, an American swimmer, who was having a hard time waking up after the night's celebration, passed by the apartment building where the crisis took place. He was supposed to attend a press conference in the morning. When he reached the media center, a journalist asked the athlete, who was also Jewish, "Did you hear what happened?" asked. The answer he got was:

“Yes, I won seven gold medals.”

That athlete's name was Mark Spitz.

A child on the beaches of Waikiki

Mark, the first child of the Spitz family, was born on February 10, 1950, in Modesto, California. He moved to Hawaii with his family when he was only two years old. While he spent most of his time on Waikiki Beach, his love for swimming also developed there. Four years later, the family hit the road again and ended up in Sacramento. After spending some time at local swimming clubs, Mark started attending Arden Hills Swimming Club when he was nine. Here he met Sherm Chavoor, who had previously coached Olympic champions. By the age of ten, he had one world record and 17 national records in his age group. It was obvious that this child would be something completely different.

Unable to stay still, his family moved once again when Mark was 14 years old. This time the destination was Santa Clara. While Mark continued his studies at the Santa Clara Swim Club, he dominated competitions in every category during his high school years. During this time, he also participated in an international competition for the first time. Entering the pool at the Hamakabiya Games in 1965, Mark won four gold medals and was chosen as the best athlete of the games. Now the hunt for medals at the international level has begun.

He won five gold medals at the 1967 Pan American Games, but his main goal was the Olympics. Going into the 1968 Olympics, he already held many world records. Predictions were that he could easily win six gold medals. However, while Mark won two gold medals in the 4x100 and 4x200 meter freestyle races at the games, he could not achieve the success he wanted in the individual categories. He won a silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly and a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle. This was not a good enough performance for him. After the Olympics, he would make, in his own words, the most important and correct decision of his life. Accordingly, he would go to Indiana University and start working with coach Doc Counsilman. He only wanted to win everything.

Faster than anyone

Time passed and Mark landed in Munich for the Olympic Games in the summer of 1972. This time there was no sign of it. He would do what he had to do to leave here with six gold medals. So he would be faster than everyone else.

First, he landed in the pool in the 200-meter butterfly. And then, he won the gold medal in the 4x100 meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, and 4x200 meter freestyle respectively. He achieved a total of five gold medals. There were two competitions left: 100 meters freestyle and 4x100 meters medley. But there was a little problem. Mark wasn't very confident in the 100-meter freestyle. He would even admit this to a poolside reporter before the race.

“I know I whine before every race. But this time I'm serious. If I make it six out of six, I will be remembered as a hero. But if I make six out of seven, I will be considered a failure.”

Yes, it can be said that Mark is exaggerating the situation a bit here. Probably even if he made six out of seven, he would have exceeded expectations. However, these words of his summarize the perfectionist perspective on his sport.

When all the competitions were completed on September 4, 1972, Mark still could not achieve the six out of six he wanted so much. Because he had done better. He managed to win the gold medal in seven of the seven races he participated in. Moreover, he reached the world record in all of these. There was only one thing left to do from now on: Celebrate!

Mark went out to a nice dinner with two journalist friends. Then he retired to his room because he had to attend a press conference the next morning. There was nothing strange that caught his attention in the morning. It was like any other morning. There was only one change in himself: Seven gold medals! When he reached the media center, he was going to give this answer to the question asked by one of his journalist friends with whom he had dinner in the evening. He would be very surprised when he heard what happened.

“Turns out terrorists killed two athletes. However, the news had not yet spread at that time.”

The Americans would take high-level protection measures for their number one athlete in the coming hours. After all, Mark was also a Jew and could not be put in danger in any way. Father Spitz got on a helicopter through the German Chancellor and came to Mark. By the time he arrived, six armed guards had already appeared around Mark. American officials said Mark should return to the country immediately. However, he was still going to go to Stuttgart and appear in a commercial for a German sports car. But they couldn't let their guard down. They stopped by London on the way back. One of the most famous photographs in the history of sports remained as a souvenir from this break.

“It seemed so unimportant to do such a thing when there was a big matter of life and death on the other hand... But I thought I had to fulfill my duty. "I wasn't in the mood to make a poster like that, but we went to the studio and shot it anyway."

Mark's sadness stemmed from the fact that nine Israeli hostages had been killed that day. After an unsuccessful rescue operation, a total of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, a German police officer, and five Palestinian militants died.

“It was the end of innocence. Today, security measures are at a much higher level. However, after what happened that day, the Olympic Games lost their naturalness and feature of being a peaceful competition environment that brings the whole world together.”

Although one of the first things that comes to mind when the Munich Olympics is mentioned is this non-sporting, painful event, when we turn to the sports side, Mark Spitz's performance is remembered as one of the most unforgettable in history. The record he broke with seven gold medals could not be surpassed for 36 years until a superhuman creature named Michael Phelps appeared.

For Mark, winning was everything. He was a perfectionist, but what he achieved was beyond perfect.