The second best thing to ever happen to Mark Spitz


Surely the best thing that ever happened to Mark Spitz, was his winning 7 gold medals at the Summer Olympic Games in Munich in 1972.  Spitz was appropriately thrust into the position of sports hero and commercially viable “product.”

Whether he is able to recognize it or not, the second best thing to happen to Mark Spitz is the fact that Michael Phelps broke his single Olympic Games record, by winning 8 gold medals.  Phelps breaking of Spitz record has re-energized the Spitz “brand” which up to this week has largely been forgotten.  I dare say that apart from occassional recollections of Olympic Games of the past, Spitz has hardly been thought of in the last 20+ years, particularly outside of competitive swimming circles.  Since the opening of the 2008 Games, Spitz’ name was mentioned on at least a daily basis, by the media and fans around the world, as anticipation was bulding that Phelps would break his 36 year old feat. 

Once Phelps achieved his goal, Spitz was not only being mentioned, but also interviewed on national television.  But as if receiving renewed interest in his 36 year old accomplishment and some fresh celebrity relevance was not enough, Spitz is now asserting that if he and Phelps were to compete against one another in their primes, they would tie.  Really?  His contention that great competitors “know” how to beat each other just doesn’t seem to work for me.  The problem with this conjecture is that they did not swim all the same events in their respective Olympic Games.  So, this speculation is a little goofy.  But to the extent they did share some of the same events, in a very real sense, they have competed against one another in their respective “primes.”  And using the most objective measure possible, the clock, and what we could assume to be their “best times,” Phelps crushes Spitz.  But, the issue is not whether or not they would be competitive with one another on some hypothetical basis.  The indisputable fact is that Phelps swam in, and won more events in one Olympic Games than Spitz did.  I contend that if Spitz had been capable of winning 8 medals in 1972, he would have at least tried to do so.  Don’t you think?  He did not. 

The breaking of long standing records must be an emotional affair that few of us mortals can understand.  When one’s identity is so wrapped up in that record, it must almost seem as if a part of you has died when it is finally broken.  In that respect, I empathize with Spitz.   But I am reminded of how graciously Hank Aaron congratulated Barry Bonds when his home run hitting record was broken.  And Aaron graciously conceded his “title” of Home run King to a man who is essentially a juiced-up cheater. 

Mark Spitz really ought to just be grateful for his new found celebrity status, and leave his hypothetical “I’m as good as he is” bluster left unsaid.  If he wants to imagine it, that is fine.  To utter it out loud, not such a good idea.  Phelps stands alone, and the hypothetical “we’d tie” rhetoric makes Spitz look shallow and lacking in grace.

Application for believers?  We should remember that our identity is found in Christ.  Not in our personal accomplishments, no matter how noble, significant or long lasting.  Our identity is found in the accomplishment and fame of someone else.  And ours is an identity that can never be lost.  No need to EVER anticipate or be anxious about someone taking it away from us.  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  Isaiah 43: 1.


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