August 15, 2008, - 12:09 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
**** SCROLL DOWN FOR UPDATES ****
As I wrote earlier this week, it’s completely unfair to compare 1972’s true amateur Mark Spitz in tiny Speedo bikini to 2008’s high-tech, unitard encased Michael Phelps. Who knows, given the same conditions–and if they were the same age at the same time, if Phelps would beat Spitz?
That said, Mark Spitz has been an incredibly good sport in wishing Phelps well and in repeatedly telling interviewers that he hopes Phelps beats his 36-year record of holding the most Olympic Gold medals from any one Summer Games. He’s also said he’s held the record for too long, and that it’s time to be broken.
But Spitz is rightfully upset that no-one in the U.S. or International Olympic Committees invited him to the Olympics to watch Phelps break his record. Stupid move on their part. Here you have a champion magnanimously wishing another breaks his record, and no-one cares to invite him. He’s simply ignored. And, frankly, from a marketing standpoint, it’s stupid not to invite him. Speedo–whose suit Spitz wore in 1972–should have invited Spitz.
“You don’t go to the Olympics just to say, ‘I am going to go.’ Especially because of who I am,” Spitz, now 58, told a French wire service. “I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That’s almost demeaning to me. It is not almost — it is.”
The NHL invited Gordie Howe to watch Wayne Gretzky beat his all-time goal-scoring record. And other sports teams and leagues have done the same when other big records were broken. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s great PR–PR, which everyone blew in the case of Spitz. To leave Spitz out is simply indecent.
But most jarring is the reaction Spitz has gotten from others, who’ve responded to Spitz, calling him a “poor sport.” The Detroit Free Press has a round up. HUH?:
Mark Spitz’s complaint about not getting invited to Beijing to watch Michael Phelps go after his record of seven gold medals isn’t getting much sympathy in the swimming community, Charles Robinson writes at Yahoo! Sports.
“Mark Spitz had one more gold medal left in him after all,” Robinson writes. “And in a medley event, no less: arrogance, vanity and back-to-back legs of self-pity.
And former Michigan head coach Jon Urbanchek, a U.S. assistant, told the Baltimore Sun of Spitz: “His time is gone. I’m sure he can afford a ticket if he wants to be here. It would have been nice for him to be here and witness it. I really feel he contributed a lot to swimming. But it’s time to turn the reins over to somebody else. You’ve got to move on with life. Get a life after swimming.”
These people are obnoxious. And, frankly–especially in the case of Urbanchek–they sound a little jealous that they never achieved Spitz’s sports greatness. Spitz has exhibited none of these negative attributes.
Spitz should buy his own ticket and pay for his own trip to see his record “broken”? It’s chutzpah to expect him to do that. But that’s what several of his critics are saying.
Yes, Spitz canceled plans to become a dentist and built a career as an endorser after the Olympics. But he was too much before his time in that career. In his day, he didn’t make millions of dollars in endorsements like Michael Phelps has already made and will continue to earn. Yes, Spitz did okay. But he’s not a multi-millionaire like Phelps or anything close. Today, he is a pitchman not for Viagra, but for Botox–things Phelps will never have to do because at the end of the Games he can retire at age 23 with millions. And, unlike Gordie Howe and his wife when Gretzky beat his record, Spitz has been incredibly warm and gracious to Phelps.
He deserved not only a free round-trip, first-class ticket for himself and his family to watch Phelps, but the royal treatment. As a then-agent of an Olympic Silver medalist diver, I watched at the 1996 Olympics as many former medalists of old (Mary Lou Retton, Bart Connor, etc.) were flown in and welcomed by Olympic officials as part of the extended but fraudulent Olympic “family”.
To not invite Mark Spitz, is not just wrong. It’s tasteless.
And everyone involved in this giant omission of him ought to be ashamed.
From what I wrote about Phelps v. Spitz, earlier this week:
If Michael Phelps gets the 8 medals and sets the record, what will that do for you, me, or America? Not much. But it’ll do a heckuva lot for sales of that Speedo unitard swimsuit contraption. Didn’t Jamie Lee Curtis, Jane Fonda, and Olivia Newton-John wear those in the ’80s? Remember, Mark Spitz was a true amateur in a tiny Speedo bikini with a hirsute body to slow him down. This guy, Phelps, is a well-paid, vitamin/electrolyte/magic protein-engorged professional encased in a second-skin cheater’s uniform.
Phelps is one of the great Olympic athletes. But he is not necessarily greater than Mark Spitz, regardless of whether he “breaks” Spitz’s record.
**** UPDATE: Reader Sean writes:
Thanks for covering the issue of Mark Spitz not being at the Olympics.
I heard the on-air commentators mention it once this past week, touching on the basics of the issue, then never bringing it up again. I’m sure they got silenced afterward. It’s bad enough the IOC wouldn’t invite a legend to the games, but I have NO IDEA why the USOC would neglect bringing him over. Like you said, this could have been a P.R. GOLD MINE for them, showing the still-smiling Spitz as he sees his record broken, the link to today’s U.S. Olympian to the past greatness that inspired him. But all this begs the question: Why? Why did neither Olympic body invite him? There’s probably a story there, and I’d be willing to bet there’s petty back-stabbing involved.
I bet the same way on this.
**** UPDATE #2: Reader Charles has another theory, which–given the anti-Semitic history of the Olympics–I think has a lot of validity:
I read your position on Mark Spitz. It occurred to me that you have omitted something really important.
The IOC and the US Committee under Avery Brundage were outright anti-semites. I believe Spitz’s treatment is more of the same.
In the ’36 Berlin Olympics they did not allow the Jews, such as Marty Glickman, to race so as not to embarrass Hitler. The Arab terrorists attacked the Jews, the games just went on. To tell the truth I wont even watch the damn show.