BEIJING—They are both tied to the number seven, as in medals. They both swam six of the same events and set world records in all of them. They were both the talk of the sporting world.
Yet one is tall and ripped; one was shorter and sinewy. One is modest; one was cocky. One looks bad in a mustache; one looked good.
Michael Phelps has won seven gold medals at these Beijing Olympics, tying Mark Spitz's unheard-of record in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
But it has been 36 years since Spitz last entered competition. His times in the 1972 Olympics wouldn't win a good college meet today. Doesn't matter. What matters is their careers are in parallel universes, a galaxy where Olympic glory never dies. "He's almost identical to me," Spitz said this month to the French wire service Agence-France Presse. "He reminds me of myself."
Spitz is 58, has a mane of gray hair and sports the kind of paunch you don't think possible on swimming heroes. He's a stockbroker but makes most of his coin as a motivational speaker.
"I was chasing someone named Don Schollander and Jesse Owens, who had four gold medals, and when I came up with a program for seven gold medals, it came to be almost ridiculously invented by myself," Spitz said. "I had a lot of naysayers."
No one came close to Spitz in his four individual gold medals, and he and his teammates nearly lapped the field in the three relays. The only close races Phelps has had here was a comeback win in the 400-meter freestyle relay and today's stirring 100-meter butterfly.
"It is quite difficult to imagine that one of his competitors is going to think that on any given day that it is going to be his day," said Spitz, who lives outside of Los Angeles.
The differences between Spitz and Phelps, however, go beyond times and looks. The nation viewed them much differently. Phelps has never made a prediction.
Spitz, meanwhile, came to Munich humbled after four years earlier talking about thrashing Schollander's record. Spitz slumped out of Mexico with two golds, a silver and a bronze.
"Then in '72, he was obviously a more mature man," U.S. swim coach Mark Schubert said.