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BEIJING 2008 : STEVE SPRINGER / ON SPORTS MEDIA

Grace between champions

August 18, 2008|STEVE SPRINGER

As Michael Phelps dived into his bid to surpass the Olympic standards set by Mark Spitz, the 58-year-old Spitz expressed bitterness he had not been invited to watch the historic swimming performance in person in Beijing, according to a French wire service.

But when Spitz, in Detroit to watch one of his sons in a basketball tournament, finally faced Phelps via an NBC split screen, he was gracious and charming, expressing only praise and admiration for the 23-year-old Phelps, who was poised to win his eighth gold medal of the 2008 Games, breaking a Spitz mark that had stood for 36 years. Days earlier, Phelps had swum past another Spitz record, nine career golds, an achievement Spitz had shared with three others.

"I wondered what I was going to say at this monumental time," Spitz told Phelps. "The word that comes to mind: epic. What you did was epic."

In remarks printed earlier by Agence France-Presse and reprinted in the Detroit Free Press, Spitz had struck a very different tone in addressing his absence from Beijing.

"I never got invited," Spitz said. "You don't go to the Olympics just to say, 'I am going to go.' Especially because of who I am. 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.

"They voted me one of the top five Olympians [of] all time. Some are dead. But they invited the other ones to go to the Olympics, but not me. Yes, I am a bit upset about it."

In his NBC remarks, Spitz said he had decided four years ago, when Phelps won six gold medals at the Athens Olympics, that Phelps had the potential to go further.

"Now the whole world knows," Spitz said. "We are so proud of you here, Michael, in America and the way you've handled yourself. . . . You represent such an inspiration to youngsters around the world. You have a tremendous responsibility for all those people you are going to inspire over the next number of years. I know that you will wear the crown well.

"You know, you weren't born when I did what I did. I'm sure I was a part of your inspiration, and I take that as a full compliment. They say you judge one's character by the company that you keep, and I'm happy to keep company with you."

Even if not in person.

Host Bob Costas couldn't resist the obvious. If Spitz and Phelps, both in their prime, were to race, who would win? Spitz took the diplomatic way out.

"I certainly would know what made him tick," he said, "and how to beat him, and he would certainly know the same about me, so I would have to say, we would probably tie."

In the Olympic record book, Phelps has forever broken the tie with Spitz. The aftermaths of their memorable Olympics also figure to be very different. Although Phelps' name is indelibly stamped on these Games, the afterglow expected to last indefinitely, it wasn't that way in 1972. Even as the cheers for Spitz's performance reverberated around Munich, they were drowned out by gunfire. The slaying of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists the day after Spitz's final race overshadowed his achievement. Because he was Jewish, Spitz was whisked out of Munich and flown home.

Tragedy had pushed him off the world stage.

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The telecast of Phelps' record-breaking eighth gold-medal triumph drew 31.1 million viewers, the most for the network for any type of Saturday night programming since 31.4 million tuned in for a 1980 episode of "Empty Nest." The total of 191 million viewers for the first nine days of the Games surpasses the total for the full 17 days of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City (187 million) and the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney (185 million).

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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