Mark Spitz & the Olympics

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Mark Spitz

The 1972 Olympic games which took place in Munich, Germany are known in sports history for two reasons. First, because 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists and second, because the American Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals.

The attack on the Israeli athletes took place only a few hours after Spitz had won his last medal. It was at 4:30 in the morning on the fifth of September 1972 when the Arab terrorists knocked on the door of the Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg. When Weinberg opened the door, he and Joseph Romano, a weight lifter, were shot and killed by the terrorists. A few hours later the murderers demanded the release of 200 prisoners from Israeli jails because they had rounded up nine Israeli athletes whom they promised to kill if their demands were not met.

The Germans attempted to kill the terrorists. In the course of the fighting which then ensued, all the Israeli hostages were killed. Thereupon the Germans capitulated and let the terrorists go. However, Israel sent an assassination squad to track them down. That squad succeeded in killing eight of the 11 men involved in this massacre. A ninth terrorist died of natural causes and two were evidently assassinated, but it is not known whether this was done by Israeli agents or someone else.

As soon as the cold-blooded terrorist murders became known, American security guards surrounded Spitz and removed him from Germany, fearing that the Arab terrorists would try to kill him also because he is a Jew.

Spitz's achievement was indeed stunning. He won four individual events, the 100 and 200 m freestyle and 100 and 200 m butterfly, and then won three relay races as well.

Spitz won in phenomenal times. His first race was the 200 m butterfly, in which he touched the wall in 2:00.7. His next event, the 200 m freestyle, was even more exciting. He won that in 1:52.78. Thereafter he succeeded in the 100 m butterfly in 54.27 seconds and then in 51:22 seconds he also won the 100 m freestyle. More recently, these world records in swimming have been overcome. For example the Dutch swimmer van den Hoganband swam the 100 m freestyle in only 47.84 seconds in the last Olympics, in which the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe did the 200 m freestyle in 1:44:06.

At the time the achievement of Spitz was immense and continues to be so today. On returning home to California he was bombarded with endorsement offers. This allowed him to earn more than $7 million in two years. With this money he entered the real estate business, having first tried a movie career, which failed. In 1973 Mark Spitz married Susie Weiner, with whom he has two sons. 

Mark Spitz was 22 years old at the time of his great victories. In that year he had already accumulated 23 world swimming records and 35 United States records. Included were two gold, one silver and one bronze medal which he won in the 1968 Olympics when he was only 18 years old. Even at age 15 Spitz won four gold medals at the Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, where he was declared the most outstanding athlete. At age 16 Mark Spitz won the 100 m butterfly at the national AAU championships, the first of his 24 AAU titles.  

Mark Spitz's parents were Lenore and Arnold Spitz. Although natives of California, he lived in Honolulu, Hawaii for a time. There Mark swam at Waikiki Beach every day when he was only two and three years old.

Because his father was a wealthy steel executive, he was able to enroll Mark with George Haines, the famous Santa Clara swim club coach. When he reached college age Mark Spitz went to Indiana University where he trained with the great coach Doc Counsilman. Spitz graduated from Indiana U. in 1972 in time to attend the Olympic Games. One year earlier he was named World Smimmer of the year for the third time.

In 1989 when he was 39 years old, Mark Spitz began training for the 1992 Olympic tryouts. At that time the 6'1" Spitz weighed 185 pounds. However, he failed to qualify for the 1992 Olympics as his best time failed to meet the competition.  

One thing is certain, however. The name of Mark Spitz is now and always will be an ornament to American sports history and a source of pride to the Jewish community. May he live to 120 years. 

Shalom uívracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) & the forthcoming Youth Culture and the Generation Gap with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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