"I'll be happy to stand aside and let him carry the torch," says the earlier record holder

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated August 14, 2008 09:30 AM

As the world watches to see if Michael Phelps makes it to eight gold medals in a single Olympiad this weekend, the athlete whose record Phelps hopes to beat – Mark Spitz – is graciously wishing the young American phenomenon well.

“He is the single greatest Olympic athlete of all time now,” Spitz, 58, said on Thursday’s Today show, speaking from a California studio. “He will probably be the single greatest athlete compared to anybody in any century – the 20th, the 21st century and whatever.

“And, you know, they say you judge a person’s character by the company they keep, and I’m glad I’m keeping company with Michael Phelps.”

Spitz also said, “I’ll be happy to stand aside and let him carry the torch. He’s just one great athlete.”

Spitz won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich and two more in Montreal four years later – for a total of nine, as well as (between 1968 and 1972) a silver, a bronze, five Pan American golds, 31 National U.S. Amateur Athletic Union titles and eight U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association Championships. In all, Spitz has set 33 world records.

The Phelps Factor

As for the Phelps phenomenon, in Beijing the 23-year-old made history this week with his 10th and 11th gold medals, the most ever won by any Olympian. In five days he’s been victorious in five races and set five world records.

Phelps still has three finals to go – a total of six races, including heats and semis – to shatter the Spitz record.

Saluting Phelps’s concentration, Spitz says he realizes what the “Baltimore Bullet” is going through and the effort it takes to stay focused. “To master all the pressure he’s got is remarkable,” says Spitz.

Spitz also dismissed reports that he’s irked by having not been invited to Beijing, saying that previous commitments stateside and his heavy workload would have prevented him from making the trip.