BEIJING (Reuters) - Mark Spitz has no qualms about handing over his 36-year title of king of the Olympic pool to Michael Phelps, calling him the best ever.
Phelps, 23, on Saturday matched Spitz’s record of winning seven gold medals at one Olympics with a fingertip victory in the men’s 100 metre butterfly final.
This not only puts him on a par with Spitz’s record but also gives him a shot at topping that by bagging an eighth gold when he competes in his final event on Sunday, the 4x100 medley relay.
“I think that he can be called, Michael, the best Olympian of all time, more so not because he has more gold medals than anybody but in the way he’s handled himself and in the way he’s actually won under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Spitz told the U.S. television network NBC.
Spitz, 58, said he always knew someone would eventually match the benchmark he set at 1972 Munich Games.
He called Phelps’s performance “epic” and said the Baltimore native represents “an inspiration to youngsters around the world.”
As Phelps has bagged gold after gold at Beijing, the world’s media had been hunting for Spitz to get his reaction to the swimmer attacking his record after 36 years.
There were rumours that he was in Beijing, then that he was in Hong Kong, and then that he was at home in California.
However it turned out he was in Detroit, watching one of his two sons play in a basketball tournament.
After Saturday’s race Phelps told NBC that he thought he had lost the race that earned him a extra $1 million from sponsor Speedo which promised him a bonus if he matched Spitz’s record.
“As soon as I took the last half stroke, to be honest, I thought I had lost the race,” he told the U.S. network that bought exclusive broadcasting rights to the Aug 8-24 Games.
“And that was the difference, ‘cause if I would have glided then I would have come up short. I’ve been lucky enough over the last four years to have two pretty good finishes in Olympic finals. I guess I‘m blessed.”
Whether he wins an eighth gold medal or not, Phelps will leave Beijing as the most successful Olympian of all time.
By Saturday he had lifted his gold medal tally to 13 which tops the previous record of nine held jointly by Spitz, U.S. sprinter Carl Lewis, Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi and Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina.
(Additional reporting by Sandra Maler in Washington)