Michael Phelps just turned in one of the most amazing sports careers of all time. He leaves the sport of swimming at the end of the London Olympic Games with a career 22 medals, an astounding 18 of them gold. No other single Olympian in history even has double digits in gold. In fact, he has more gold medals than the entire country of Argentina. He has more career Olympic medals than India.
At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Phelps made history by winning eight gold medals in eight straight events. He broke the long-standing record of fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz, who went seven golds for seven events in Munich in 1972. When Phelps broke Spitz’ medal record, the world crowned him as the new “Greatest Olympian,” and there was very little public debate about it. Now, as Phelps finishes up with his astonishing career medal count, crushing former Soviet female gymnast Larisa Last-name-ina for all-time individual medals won, and ending up with twice as many career medals as Spitz, he will be written into the history books as the greatest, bar none.
I am here today to dispute that. I am here today to tell you that Spitz was better.
My case for Spitz being a more dominant swimmer doesn’t even take into account that he won most of his 1972 Olympic races by body lengths, or that he set new world record times in all seven swims. I’m not even focusing on the fact that he swam without goggles, that he swam without a cap, or that he swam with an afro, all of his rather prodigious underarm hair, and a Tom Selleck moustache. My argument even ignores his 1970’s red, white, and blue Speedo, which is hard to ignore.
My argument has to do with eating. A lot of fuss was made during the 2008 Olympic coverage about how much Michael Phelps ate every day. While it was certainly a lot, in the world of competitive swimming, it was pretty standard. World-class swimmers do two things. Swim and eat. When I was swimming in high school, I would come home from practice and eat the entire right side of the fridge. That’s just par for the course, swimming-wise.
The amount of food that Spitz and Phelps put away during their swimming days is not where my argument lies. My case for Spitz’ athletic superiority comes from the amount of food he could put away during a race.
When I was in high school, our swim coach told us a story about Mark Spitz. Back when Spitz was in high school in Santa Clara, California, Coach Pete had seen him race at a nationals meet. Spitz already held national high school records in every stroke, and he was heavily favored in every one of his races, but when the swimmers took the blocks for one of his events, he was absent.
His name was called over the loudspeaker, and everyone at the pool and in the grandstands began looking around for him. When the race officials called his name again, telling him to report to his lane to start the race, he was seen jogging toward the starting blocks from the snack bar. He had three hot dogs in one hand, and he was eating another while he was running toward the pool.
He reached his starting block at one of the middle lanes of the pool, chewing the last of the hot dog he had been eating while he ran. He handed two of the three remaining dogs to the timer behind his block, asking the man to please save them for him. He then joined his opponents, stepping up onto his starting block, still holding a hot dog.
Now, let’s be clear for a minute. We’re talking about an Oscar Mayer wiener, in a bun, with the condiments of Spitz’ choice. In his hand. On the starting blocks. Of a nationals race. He had just wolfed down one of them while running. He was now standing over the end of his lane holding another.
As the crowd looked on in awe, amazement, and amusement, Mark Spitz proceeded to stuff the entire hot dog into his mouth, reach down to touch the block at the “take your marks” command, and dive into the pool with seven other swimmers, starting his race while chewing and swallowing a whole hot dog on lap number one.
He beat the nearest finisher by almost two body lengths.
Michael Phelps is undoubtedly awesome, but all he ever did was swim. It probably never even occurred to him to combine competitive eating with competitive swimming. Mark Spitz was a trailblazing, groundbreaking, lightning fast, “I can eat a hot dog during this race and still whip your ass” kind of an athlete. Wait 30 minutes after eating before getting in the pool? No thanks. I’ll eat while I’m swimming.
See you soon,
Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen
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