Today, September 4th, 2012, is the 40-year anniversary of when Mark Spitz won his legendary 7th gold medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich: which was, at the time, the most ever for a single Olympics.
Though one Michael Phelps has since surpassed that record with 8 at the 2008 Olympics, Spitz’s feat is still revered as a pioneering, earth-shattering moment in Olympic history. That is as much for what he accomplished, as for when he did it.
The 1972 Olympics are when the games first took a turn toward commercialism. It was the first Olympics where the mascot, a dachshund named “Waldi,” was named. It was the first year where the IOC would accept money from corporate sponsorship, eschewing the idea that their influence would affect the decision-making of the games organizers. Suddenly, a $2 million budget ballooned to $45 million in assets over the next 8 years.
The games that year, lived up to the hype and grasped the international attention. It was the games where 8 Palestinian terrorists, on September 5th, went on a rampage and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, plus a West German police officer. In the midst of the cold war, it was the first time the Olympics returned to Germany after World War II.
On the playing surfaces and medal stands, fans were witness to the most controversial basketball game in history, where the final three seconds of the gold medal game were replayed twice, allowing the USSR to overtake the Americans in the final three seconds. The Americans to this day have not accepted their silver medals.
It was the same games where two American 400 meter runners Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett were suspended from the team after being too casual on the podium during the national anthem, chatting and even turning away from the flag. Mathews explained to the press afterwards, “I couldn’t stand there and sing the words because I don’t believe they’re true. I wish they were. I believe we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we do.” The Americans had to scratch their own 4×400 relay because they could no longer fill it with four athletes.
Even in the swimming venue, Australian Shane Gould had what stands near Spitz as among the greatest Olympic performances ever; she won three golds, a silver, and a bronze medal at just 15 years old, forty years before Katie Ledecky’s single gold at the same age rocked the swimming world.
And yet, Spitz’s performance still stands out among all of those events. He won the 100 and 200 butterflies, the 100 and 200 freestyles, and all three relays. The performance carried significant weight historically, as he won his final gold in the 400 medley before the Palestinians went on a killing spree of Israeli athletes; Spitz, who is Jewish and could have been targeted because of his new-found high-profile, was swept out of the country under heavy security, and could have just as easily been among those targeted.
Spitz was a man eons ahead of his time, and changed the sport of swimming forever. 40 years later, he is still sought out as a mouthpiece for the swimming culture by those who remember him as their first great experience in swimming. That, in itself, says volumes about how his 1972 performance changed the sport.