Watching Michael Phelps win his eighth gold medal at the Olympics, and especially watching Mark Spitz congratulate him for win number 7, something started bouncing around in my head. Something just didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I finally realized what was off when I saw yet another Michael Phelps ad during the Olympic coverage.
When Mark Spitz set his record for seven Olympic golds in 1972, the Olympics were – at least as far as the United States was concerned – an amateur athletic competition. The rules at that time specifically prohibited paid athletes from competing. Being paid to appear in ads for wireless phone and credit card companies would have automatically disqualified athletes from competing in the games. It was simply unheard of.
In addition, Spitz was, as some commentators noticed, swimming in off the shelf swim trunks without a cap and with a big cheesy mustache. There were no highly regimented, chemist created nutritional programs, aerodynamically designed suits, and shaved armpits. There were just amateur swimmers who often had menial jobs to do in the midst of training.
The rest of the world began to crank out athletes in Olympic farms much the same way the Chinese now do with their gymnasts – taking small children into the program and engineering athletes from scratch. When the US finally allowed professional athletes to compete, it forever changed the Olympics for me.
I watch professional athletes like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Keri Walsh, Misty May. Phelps, despite the lack of a professional swimming league, falls into that same category for me because of the commercial endorsement deals that allow him to train as a full time job.
I watch them and I really miss the old Olympics. I miss the days when the athletes were people you had never heard of who lived in near poverty to train for the games because they simply loved to compete.
While Phelps’ feat is no doubt impressive, and his record likely to stand for another four decades, I feel it should be recorded with an asterisk the way home run records are. The fact is Mark Spitz record in 1972 is a record from another era. It represents a completely different approach to the Olympics and, to me, a completely different level of achievement.