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Spitz still a man apart, but not by own choice

Bill Dwyre

August 02, 2008|Bill Dwyre

Mark Spitz is 36 years removed from perhaps the single greatest performance in Olympic history, his seven swimming gold medals in Munich in 1972.

Strangely, he apparently is also removed from the proceedings in Beijing, an interesting omission or oversight, considering that the biggest story of the 2008 Games might be Michael Phelps' attack on Spitz's record.

A simple question, an interview icebreaker, brought this exchange:

"You're going to Beijing, I presume?"

"As we speak, no."

"Really. That is strange. Why not?"

"Well, there are reasons running from A to Z, and then some."

He didn't bring the topic up. He was asked. That being said, it clearly made him edgy.

One of the reasons may be the assumption that he would be there in his role as spokesman for Panasonic, one of the main Olympic sponsors. Not so. Spitz said Panasonic, despite the millions it spends as an International Olympic Committee sponsor, has scaled back its role as a corporate host in Beijing.

"This is how it works," Spitz said. "Sponsors bring in a group of customers. They give them three days worth of tickets, but, even with all the money the sponsors spend, they don't get all the best tickets. So their guests find themselves sitting for hours at field hockey, and after a couple of days of that, their wives say no more, and decide to go shopping and see some of the cultural things in the Olympic city.

"But of course, in Beijing, that's not happening. So Panasonic has scaled back and I'm not going."

Spitz, 58, lives in Westwood. He travels extensively, does motivational speaking -- "Sometimes as many as 30 speeches in an Olympic year," he said -- and is part of a business venture in the Louisiana gulf area with former NBA star Rick Barry that Spitz said could become the largest water bottling operation in the country.

He will do business in Hong Kong, one of the Olympic cities, just before the Games, but also has commitments in the States during them.

Spitz was in Omaha for the recent U.S. swim trials and presented medals to some of the winners there but has no invitation to Beijing.

"The badge-wearers will do that in China," he said, referring to IOC and swim federation officials.

He was asked specifically if he had any sort of invitation from the IOC. "No," he said.

How about the other obvious players -- NBC, the U.S. Olympic Committee or FINA, the international swim federation?

He said no to each, adding, "My agent said the other day, 'Guess what? If they are keeping it a secret, they're doing one hell of a job.' "

Is there a reason for this apparent snub?

"My answer would be, you got me, ace," Spitz said, adding that, at this point, he'd rather be at home in his living room, watching on TV, than sitting up in the stands when Phelps goes for his record.

Spitz addressed several other topics. He said Phelps looked good when he saw him in Omaha, that he is swimming the same program he did in Athens in 2004, when he won six gold and two bronze medals, and that familiarity will help him. He said Phelps' biggest threat to the record will be U.S. teammate Ian Crocker in the 100 butterfly.

"Greatness is a matter of measure," said Spitz, who did attend the Athens Games. "If [Phelps] judges himself by topping something I did, then I am honored, I'll be the first to congratulate him."

Spitz said that his failed comeback attempt at age 39, and the success of Dara Torres at 41, are not comparable because she has continued to train and work and keep herself at a high level in the sport.

"I didn't do diddly for 17 years," Spitz said.

He handled the topic of performance-enhancing drug speculation about Torres diplomatically.

"I am a big advocate of the way the IOC does its drug testing," he said. "They have a list. If you take something on that list, you get caught. If you don't take anything on that list, you won't get caught. There's just no other way to look at it."

So Torres?

"She's obviously drug free of what they test for," Spitz said.

Spitz said the pressure on Olympians is huge, much bigger than when he competed. "Money is the common denominator, the evil of where we are," he said.

The IOC has sponsors who demand a good show. Television pays the IOC for the rights to that good show, and its sponsors want that too. Drug news and drug distractions are not a good show.

"People are not going to tune in to see athletes have their medals taken away from them," Spitz said.

Strangely, Spitz may have to tune in no matter what, just to see if his record is broken.

That would put him 6,257 miles and 15 time zones away from where he should be.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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