SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
September 11, 1972
The Munich tabloid Abendzeitung referred to Mark Spitz last week as Mark der Hai, which may not have any special ring in the original but translates into the well-nigh perfect nickname of Mark the Shark. As Spitz emerged the hero of the Olympics, the same newspaper waxed indignant that the American swimmer had held aloft a pair of track shoes on one of his frequent trips to the victory stand. Before the matter was dropped, Olympic officials had summoned Spitz for a hearing, and he had showed up snappily attired in his U.S. parade uniform. What the International Olympic Committee wanted to know was whether Spitz was promoting the shoes for pay, a suspicion that would have been more justified if he had been holding up an outboard motor instead.
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September 11, 1972

The Golden Days Of Mark The Shark

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Consistent if unspectacular, King waited until the eighth dive to move ahead of Sweden's 17-year-old Ulrika Knape, who later won the platform competition and who wasn't even born when King took up the sport. Afterwards King, like all winners, had to submit to a drug-control urinalysis but, she said, "I couldn't go, so I had to wait around." When she finally left two hours later, she was alone with her gold medal. "I returned to the Olympic Village and had a chocolate drink," she said. "Three Australian weight lifters told me, 'A gold medalist shouldn't be drinking chocolate. We've got a bottle of wine.' " King and the appreciative Australians celebrated until one a.m.

The Schwimmhalle was the scene of other sentimental journeys to the victory stand. After a drought of gold medals dating back to 1960, Japanese swimmers took two of them, one going to Nobutaka Taguchi, who enshrouded himself in a sleeping bag for 50 minutes before the 100 breast stroke, explaining "It helps me concentrate," and then emerged to set a world record. Sweeter still were Gunnar Larsson's victories in the 200 and 400 individual medleys, Sweden's first golds since 1928. Larsson, who swam for Long Beach State, defeated American Tim McKee in the 400 by two one-thousandths of a second—4:31.981 to 4:31.983—but only after the electronic timer took agonizing minutes to separate the two. "There has to be a winner and loser even if it's two one-millionths," McKee said philosophically.

The East German star, Matthes, gave a sly smile and an Oriental bow before handily winning his two backstroke specialties. Matthes also swam the 100 butterfly but had a bad start. After placing fourth behind Spitz, he assumed a nonchalance utterly inconsistent with the official East German line on athletics. "I'm not disappointed," Matthes said. "It's not really serious. It's just a sport."

The biggest threat to U.S. supremacy was Australia. Although the Aussie men were disappointing—Wenden, the gold medalist in the 100 and 200 freestyle in Mexico, finished well back in both events—Aussie girls paddled off with gold aplenty. They were led by Shane Gould, who had been expected to swim only the four freestyle events and two relays. Her personal coach, Forbes Carlile, was virtually alone in wanting her to add the 200 individual medley. Shane's butterfly and breaststroke had improved in recent months and other Australian officials finally agreed with Carlile, who had insisted, "The 200 IM is her best chance for gold."

That assessment seemed sound when Gould held off East Germany's Kornelia Ender to win in a world record 2:23.07. Shane mounted the victory platform carrying a frayed kangaroo that Australian swimmers have taken to every Olympics since '56. It was an uncomfortably close win, but it hardly would hurt sales of Swimming the Shane Gould Way, a book written by Shane's mum, which was due to be published in the U.S. this week. The next day, however, she finished a disappointing third to Neilson in the 100 freestyle and recriminations were heard among the Aussies. It was suggested that the medley may have taken its toll, and there were claims, too, that Shane's mighty elbows-high stroke had partly disintegrated. Everybody agreed that her weight, up from 135 to 141, was too much for her 5'8" frame. "Shane's reacting to the stress of the Olympics by eating," one Aussie said.

As for Neilson, she was mobbed by U.S. teammates after her win over Gould and then returned to the Village to make a transatlantic call to her coach, Don La-Mont, who, it turned out, was not at home. "He's at the beach, the bum," she said. Meanwhile, Gould dined quietly with Australian officials and later joined in a celebration for her roommate, Beverley Whitfield, who had come to Munich lightly regarded in the 200 breast-stroke, yet won the event in Olympic-record time (she mounted the victory stand carrying her personal koala bear instead of the team kangaroo). "The kids crowded around Bev, and that took the pressure off me," Shane said.

She was relaxed enough the next day to wave to Australians in the crowd on her way to the starting block for the 400 free. She could also have waved to her rivals in the water, so wide was the gulf that separated them from Shane at the finish. Her confidence restored, Gould beat Babashoff in the 200 free before finishing second to Rothhammer in the 800. That gave her five medals in all.

Gould was spectacular but Mark the Shark was much more so, and swim buffs will be recounting his feats in Munich for as long as pools make waves. The big week began Monday when Spitz led Gary Hall and Robin Backhaus to a 1-2-3 U.S. sweep in the 200 butterfly and, barely 40 minutes later, anchored the winning 400 freestyle relay. He won his third gold in 24 hours the next evening, taking the 200 freestyle, and added his fourth and fifth Thursday in the 100 butterfly and 800 freestyle relay. His sixth medal came in the 100 freestyle Sunday, after which he faced a one-day wait before the final relay.

The only time Spitz was even appreciably behind in any of the finals was when he was briefly overtaken by Steve Genter midway through the 200 free. That race was also noteworthy because West Germany's Werner Lampe, who won the bronze swimming with a shaved skull, donned a wig for the medal presentation, and because the carefree Genter, who also shaves his head, grittily took the silver even though he had suffered a partially collapsed lung the week before. Doctors had drained the lung, and Genter had spent five days in Munich University Hospital. He was released the day before the 200, and a surgeon accompanied him to the pool as a precaution.

The 200 was also the race that produced the track-shoe incident. Spitz went to the victory stand barefoot, carrying a pair of German-made shoes that he put down behind him during the ceremonies. Picking them up afterward, he waved to the cheering crowd—and the cameras—first with his free hand and then with the one holding the shoes, upsetting the Abendzeitung, which said it was "impossible to advertise on the victory stand in a more obvious way." The paper even contacted Karl Schranz, the Austrian skier who had been barred from the Winter Olympics as a professional. "I'd like to see whether Avery Brundage has the guts to go against an American," Schranz said.

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