On the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest performances in Olympic history, Mark Spitz has reflected on the nine days in Munich that changed his life.
At the 1972 Olympic Games he won seven gold medals and broke seven world records before retiring aged 22; then, the day after his final gold, he was thrust into the unfolding tragedy of the Israeli hostage crisis that ended with the murder of six coaches, five athletes and one German police officer by Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group.
An historical sporting achievement and the darkest chapter in the Olympic story. Spitz looked back on the contrasting emotions he experienced in Germany, and how his work as a founding member of the Laureus Academy has become part of the legacy he celebrates on this anniversary.
“50 years ago, less than 24 hours after of winning my seventh Olympic gold, I was caught up in the confusion and horror which saw the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes.” said Spitz. “That day saw the greatest sporting event turned into a massacre and it turned my perception of sport on its head. It's taken 50 years for me to truly say I now fully understand the true inspiration and power of sport"
No champion has ever had as dramatic an exit from the arena as that of Mark Spitz following his final gold-medal swim. Having won four individual golds (100m and 200m butterfly, 100m and 200m freestyle) and three more in relay teams (4x100m and 4x200m freestyle, 4x100m medley), an exhausted Spitz was taken out for dinner by two journalists. Unknown to him, at the same time as he returned home late that night, eight members of the Black September terrorist group had entered the Olympic Village.
Spitz was still unaware of the breaking story as he walked into what he thought would be a press conference about his achievements the following morning. Because the seven-time champion was Jewish, it was feared he could be a target and soon Spitz was secretly rushed to safety under armed guard.
He recalled: “After the press conference I was sitting in the Olympic Village, in my room, watching TV and there was constant comment: ‘We believe Mark Spitz who finished his programme in swimming has been removed and is in Italy. About 20 minutes later: ‘No, that information was wrong, he's somewhere in Sweden.’ I don’t know if they were saying that to get people off the scent, because I was still in my room in the Olympic Village. It took a few hours to have a definitive plan.
“My coach and I were put the backseat of a car and they told me to crouch down and they put this blanket over me. After about five minutes they told me to sit up, and we were driven to the airport and then we were on a plane to London.
“When we got to London there was an armed guard outside the door, all night long. Before we went to bed, he said: ‘You're dangerous to be around.’
“I go: ‘Well, I was actually thinking the same thing about you.’
“We didn't know what was going on in Germany. When we woke up in the morning, the guard told us what happened – in that late evening, everything had happened in the military base, where the remaining athletes were killed.”
A botched ambush at an airfield resulted in the death of every one of the remaining hostages, a West German policeman and five of the terrorists. The link between Spitz’s Olympic story and that of the Israeli team has survived for half a century.
“Thirteen years later I had an opportunity to meet a couple of the wives of the slain athletes when I was in Israel and two of their children and they related to me in a big way: One, that I was Jewish; and No.2 that I was at the same Olympics with their fathers.
“It was a terrible tragedy, not only for those athletes but for the Olympic movement and for the families in particular. We are still talking about it today.”
Spitz also highlighted the mental health challenge faced by today’s champions. He said that if he had the option to continue in elite sport beyond the Munich Games in 1972, instead of retiring aged 22, he, too, may have found it hard to maintain such dedicated focus without facing the same issues.
In recent years athletes including Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes and Chloe Kim have stepped back from competition to protect their mental health. With a strict amateur code in place in 1972, Spitz did not see any alternative other than retiring. And this, according to one of the founding members of the Laureus Academy, is one of the reasons he can today look back on his Olympic achievements after 50 healthy and happy years outside of the pool.
“Athletes that have been extremely successful, they are placed on a podium and they are admired and revered,” said Spitz. “And 15 minutes later, they walk off into the sunset. And that's hard, to walk off into the sunset, because there are not going to be those types of moments. Nobody is going to recognise you and put you on a podium for achieving your goal [outside of sport].
“I have never experienced the sort of things that we see some athletes going through, but I didn't have those opportunities [to compete professionally]. I think I might have experienced something similar had there been professionalism in my sport that projected me into continually competing beyond the age of 22.”
Spitz was full of admiration for David Popovici, the Romanian freestyle sensation who broke a 13-year-old world record in the 100m freestyle at the age of 17 – the same age Spitz was when he claimed his first global mark.
With the Olympics returning to Los Angeles in 2028, Spitz believes the youngster still has a huge capacity to get even faster.
“He's a great swimmer and he's a great sprinter. I was told when I broke my first world record from my coach, George Haines: ‘You just went from the hunter to the hunted’. Now he (Popovici) is going to be hunted by everybody else.
“He reminds me of myself in that his body is not fully developed from a strength point of view. He is swimming the freestyle and that is a strength event, I just can't imagine what he's going to be able to do. I'm happy for him and I would be not happy if I was competing with him: turn out the lights, because he's just exited stage left, took off!
“He's 17 now, he’ll be 19 at the next Olympics and only 23 when the Olympics come back to Los Angeles in 2028. He could even go on to Brisbane!”
Spitz was one of the inaugural members of the Laureus Academy and considers his work with Laureus Sport for Good programmes all over the world to be a fundamental part of the legacy he is celebrating on this anniversary.
“This isn't about developing Olympians, although that could happen,” he said. “It's giving an opportunity to people that didn't have a chance.”