August 29, 2002
Making His Mark
On the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 4, American swimmer Mark Spitz won his seventh gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and set his seventh consecutive world record. It was a feat unprecedented in Olympic history, and the handsome 22-year-old Californian became an instant international media celebrity, nowhere more so than in the Jewish press.
A formal news conference for Spitz had been set for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5. On his way to meet the media, he heard confused reports that in the early morning hours, Arab terrorists had attacked the living quarters of the Israeli men's team, but "no one in the Olympic Village really knew what had happened," says Spitz, recalling the tumultuous events 30 years later.
At the news conference, reporters besieged Olympic officials for news of the terrorist attacks, all but ignoring Spitz.
At 10:30 a.m., Spitz met with ABC-TV sportscaster Jim McKay for a prearranged interview and there saw the first footage of a white-hatted Black September terrorist negotiating with a German policewoman.
After the interview, Spitz says he went back to his quarters in the Olympic Village and watched the day's competitions on television.
At noon on Tuesday, Spitz was visited by a delegation of Olympic officials, German security officers and U.S. State Department representatives. During on-and-off discussions that lasted until 4 p.m., it was decided that Spitz should leave immediately for home.
Unlike later Olympic Games, no security infrastructure was in place. Officials imposed an immediate news blackout on Spitz's movements. Looking back, Spitz thinks that all the concern was probably unnecessary.
"I was the most recognizable face of the Olympic Games and everybody knew where I was, so if the terrorists wanted to track me down, they could have found me," he says.
Instantly, rumors circulated that Spitz had flown to Italy or returned to the United States. At 6 p.m., Spitz and his personal coach, Sherm Chavoor, were taken to the Munich Airport for a flight to London, arriving there around 8:30 p.m.
Early the next morning, Sept. 6, Spitz learned of the deaths of nine Israeli athletes (in addition to two coaches killed in the initial attack), five of the eight terrorists and a German policeman during a bungled rescue attempt at a military airport near Munich.
From London, Spitz flew to Los Angeles and on to Sacramento, for a hero's welcome at the family home in suburban Carmichael. His face was on the cover of TIME and LIFE, and the world marveled at his lifetime achievement in setting 28 world records and 35 national records.
The only note slightly marring America's lovefest with Spitz was the criticism in some Jewish publications, questioning his behavior following the murder of the Israeli athletes.
"Would it not have lifted man's spirits if Spitz had declared his solidarity with Israel as a proud Jew?" asked an editorial in one Jewish weekly. "Would it not have been a magnificent gesture if he had dedicated his seven gold medals to the families of the slain Israeli sportsmen?"
Even after 30 years, such criticism still rankles Spitz, which he angrily labels as a "bunch of crock and garbage" by "fraidy-cats who wanted Mark Spitz to solve their problems."
At age 22, Spitz was told by the U.S. State Department to say as little as possible. "What did [the Jewish critics] want me to do? What could I have done?" he asks, adding, "It's no use. I can never win in making my point."
Following his Olympic triumph, the "Jewishness" of Spitz became a favorite debating point among Jewish journalists and others who relish such speculations.
Swimming was the central, if not sole, focus of Mark's life, since his father, Arnold Spitz, enrolled the 8-year-old boy in the swimming program at the Sacramento YMCA, counseling him that, "Swimming isn't everything, winning is."
According to an oft-repeated story, when a local rabbi informed the senior Spitz that the swimming practice of 10-year-old Mark conflicted with his Hebrew school lessons, his father replied, "Rabbi, even God likes a winner."
Sometimes, Mark's Jewishness and swimming complemented each other. He probably got his first international recognition when, as a 15-year-old, he won eight gold medals at the 1965 Maccabiah Games in Israel, and several more four years later.
Currently, he and his wife, Suzy, send their 10-year-old son, Justin, to a Jewish day school at Stephen S. Wise Temple, which was also attended by Justin's older brother, Matthew. Both parents are frequent visitors at the school.
After a short stint as an entertainment personality and doing TV commercials, Spitz is now, at 52, a public and motivational speaker and an investor in real estate and other ventures. He works out four times a week at the UCLA swimming pool.
He does not intend to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1972 Olympics and rarely thinks back on the days of triumph and tragedy.
Looking beyond his own achievements, Spitz marvels at the much tighter security precautions that have become standard at all Olympic Games following 1972, and in practically all venues since Sept. 11. "I guess we have all become used to security measures which were not even thought of in 1972," he says.