Swimming legend Mark Spitz believes in the man billed as his successor, Michael Phelps, but only partially: while Spitz thinks he will do great in London 2012, he does not really believe these will be his last Games.
In a phone interview with DPA, Spitz stressed that “Phelps would be the one to watch if they were swimming in a fur coat.” Spitz dismissed the real significance of his highly-publicised clash with Ryan Lochte in London.
“That’s made for television,” Spitz said. “I’m not a betting man, but if I were to place my bets I’d be betting on Michael Phelps.” Spitz won seven Olympic golds in swimming in Munich 1972, a feat that was only surpassed when Phelps achieved eight in Beijing 2008, to add to the six he had from Athens 2004.
Still, there are no hard feelings.
“Even if he’d gone to Beijing and won six gold medals, and not won eight, he’d still be classified without a doubt as the most outstanding Olympic swimmer, because of the quantity of medals that he’s achieved and the number of gold medals in that bundle,” Spitz noted.
He describes Lochte as a “bridesmaid” for Phelps, but credits him and “other Ryan Lochte types” for having made Phelps “the great swimmer that he is.” “If you didn’t have great people pushing somebody like a Michael Phelps then he would have been in an exhibition swim by himself,” Spitz stressed.
In London, Phelps is set to come head to head with world record-holder Lochte in the 200m and 400m medley races.
“The race that I think is going to be the really interesting race is the very first race of the Olympic Games in the men’s competition, which will be the 400 m individual medley,” he said.
“Phelps will be fresh, Lochte will be fresh, and from there it will set off a whole domino effect for what’s going to happen for those two men. If Lochte wins, then Lochte’s going to win a lot of gold medals. If Phelps wins, then Phelps is going to win a lot of gold medals.” Phelps has made it clear that he plans to retire from swimming after the Games, but Spitz does not really believe that.
“He’s only 27 years old and he still has a lot of physical ability, so that even at 31, in the Olympic Games that would be in Rio in 2016, I wouldn’t put it past him to stay in the sport but basically take the pressure off himself by saying, ‘well, I’m not doing anything’,” Spitz said.
He does not see Phelps going off to university, and he speaks from experience as he says that endorsement deals and other such business opportunities “don’t last forever.” For that reason, Spitz “would put more than a 50-50 chance” of a comeback for Phelps, whatever he says now, perhaps to compete in just one or two events in the future.
Spitz, who still enjoys swimming “sometimes,” retired at 22, but only because the rules made it necessary for him.
“You couldn’t make a penny, and I needed to pay for dental school,” he says. “I had to go off and accept a couple of the huge, enormous cash offers.” “Had the rules been different then, as they are currently are now, I would have obviously competed for at least another Olympic Games. My sponsors would have wanted me to. But that wasn’t what was available to me at the time.”