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THE GOLDEN DAYS OF MARK THE SHARK
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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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.

While exercising its customary vigilance about athletes using the Olympics to enrich themselves, the IOC showed no qualms about peddling postcards on the Olympic grounds bearing pictures of Spitz and other stars of the Games. Swim fans, for example, could buy postcards of Roland Matthes, the East German who won both backstrokes, or they could send greetings bearing the likeness of Australia's Shane Gould, who endured her first losses in freestyle competition in 18 months, but adequately compensated by winning three gold medals, each in world-record time.

Outstanding as her performance was, it was Gould's fate to be overshadowed by Spitz. Through Sunday he had competed in four individual events and two relays, and all six ended with world-record times flashing on the scoreboard and gold medals dangling from his neck. He seemed a cinch to add a seventh gold medal in Monday's 400-meter medley relay, all of which made it appropriate that the postcards were going for one mark (31ยข) rather than, say, one roland or one shane. "We are selling 60% of our Shane Goulds," reported Armin Strobel, head of the firm that printed the postcards. "Our Mark Spitzes are selling out."

There were other indications of Spitz' value in the marketplace. Fan mail and requests for personal appearances piled up in his cramped room in the Olympic Village, and his floor was strewn with chrysanthemums ("I don't even know who sent them," said Spitz). He could scarcely emerge from his quarters without being swamped by autograph-seekers, and Peter Daland, the U.S. men's coach, complained that Spitz was being besieged "by ABC, BBC and every other kind of C." The swimmer had important matters to mull over. "Maybe I'll accept the offer to be on Dick Cavett," he said one afternoon, "but I think I'll turn down The Dating Game."

Spitz' star status helped make the daily competition in the 9,000-capacity Schwimmhalle the hottest ticket at the Olympics, with scalpers peddling $12 seats for $50. Within, Mark the Shark was going about his predatory business. Day after day a fresh group of victims would solemnly walk the length of the pool deck to the starting blocks, with Spitz among them, warmup jacket slung over a shoulder. In however long it would take to swim the prescribed distance faster than anybody had before, all would be over. Spitz would drape himself across a lane marker, his gleaming teeth and black mustache a study in chiaroscuro, as his rivals hauled their spent carcasses from the pool.

Spitz, brimming with confidence, was careful to express it only after a given race was over. He fretted before the 200-meter butterfly, but after easily winning in a world-record 2:00.7, he shrugged, "If it had been do or die, I could have broken two minutes." A man with palpable faith in his physical talents, Spitz had lost in the past year or so only when he became concerned about burning himself out early in a race and failed to go out hard enough. In Munich, in a semifinal of the 100 butterfly, he lapsed into that habit but came from behind to touch out his rivals after being a distant fourth at 50 meters.

"I didn't want to show how hard I could go out," he said, flashing his now-famous grin. In the next day's final Spitz stormed into the lead, his body undulating through the pool like a whip cracking, winning in a world record 54.27. Still, he scrupulously avoided flat-out predictions ("You said seven golds, not me," he scolded one reporter), and he was sufficiently frightened of teammate Jerry Heidenreich in the 100 freestyle that he talked briefly about dropping the event rather than risk spoiling his gold medal sweep. He strained his back slightly fooling around in a mini-car at the Olympic Village and finished fractions behind Australia's Mike Wenden in both heat and semi of the event, but in the final on Sunday he showed courage as well as skill in beating Heidenreich by a luxurious 0.4 of a second.

One indication of Spitz' dominance of the swimming news came when a French newspaper reported that he and Sandy Neilson, surprise winner in the 100 freestyle over teammate Shirley Babashoff and Shane Gould, were in love. The report was quickly scotched by the Associated Press, which identified Spitz' true heartthrob as Jo Harshbarger, the U.S. distance swimmer. The AP conceded that marriage was not imminent. Harshbarger being all of 15, this was reassuring. But she and the 22-year-old Spitz were spending time together, and after receiving his gold for his victory in the 200 butterfly Spitz placed it, in a grand ceremony of his own, around Harshbarger's neck. "Jo's the best-looking swimmer since Donna de Varona," he pronounced, and then added, "I was too young for Donna, and I'm too old for Jo."

Harshbarger, for her part, said, "Mark is psyching me up for my race." But Keena Rothhammer of the U.S. beat both Jo, who finished sixth, and Shane Gould in the 800 freestyle on Sunday. Earlier, the U.S. women's team had been shut out of medals in three different events, something that never happened at Mexico City, and critics suggested that the girls had been sightseeing instead of working. But Sherm Chavoor, the women's coach, said it was simply that other countries were improving. "They're catching us in missiles, submarines and airplanes, too, aren't they?" he said. When Melissa Belote in the 100 backstroke and Cathy Carr in the 100 breaststroke scored upset wins on Saturday, Chavoor's faith in his charges' dedication was upheld.

American males failed to win a gold medal in springboard diving for the first time since 1912, and the women were shut out in the platform. But Micki King, the 28-year-old Air Force captain who suffered disaster in Mexico City in 1968, vindicated herself by winning the women's springboard. In Mexico, King was leading after eight of the 10 dives only to break her left arm on the ninth. She wound up a painful fourth. At Munich she said, "I tried to think happy, like it wasn't the Olympics."

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