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Swimming at the 1960 Roma Summer Games:

Men's 100 metres Freestyle

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Host City: Roma, Italy
Venue(s): Olympic Swimming Stadium, Roma
Date Started: August 26, 1960
Date Finished: August 27, 1960

Gold: AUS John Devitt
Silver: USA Lance Larson
Bronze: BRA Manuel dos Santos Filho

Summary

Olympic researchers usually have an easy time finding the results of more recent Olympic Games. Simply open one of the various books on the Olympics, and many of them will list the gold medalists, many the medalists, and a few give deeper placings. Rarely is there a problem. The results of the 1960 Olympic 100 metre freestyle swim are always given as listed below. But there's often a lot behind those statistics. In this case, the above result ranks with the 1972 Olympic basketball final and the 1908 400 metre run as one of the most controversial Olympic finishes ever.

In the summer of 1960, the favorite for this event was Jeff Farrell of the United States. However, six days before the U.S. Olympic Trials, Jeff Farrell had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. He was barely able to compete at the Trials and bravely held on to finish fourth, but that only earned him a relay spot at the Olympics. Jon Henricks was the defending champion and was another contender but he also fell prey to illness as intestinal problems hampered him once he got to Rome, and he was eliminated in the semi-finals.

This left the favorite's role to John Devitt, who, even with Farrell in the race, would have been a strong contender. Devitt was born in Sydney and began swimming internationally in the early 1950's. He competed at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, winning a silver medal in the 100 freestyle behind Jon Henricks and he won a gold member as a member of Australia's 4 x 200 metre freestyle relay team. Beginning in January 1957, he set three world records in the 100 metres and 110 yard freestyle. He won three consecutive Australian titles, replacing Henricks as Australia's top sprint swimmer (Henricks had won four consecutive Australian titles - 1953-56). In 1959, John Konrads handed Devitt his first defeat in over two years, but he was thought to be a stronger distance swimmer. Devitt had also been Commonwealth Games champion at 100 metres in 1958.

Lance Larson was not highly considered for the freestyle prior to the Olympic Trials. His previous best event had been the butterfly. He was the first man to break one minute in the 100 metre butterfly which he accomplished in June 1960 with a time of 59.0 seconds. Larson had attended Southern Cal and was a superb all-around swimmer. At various times he was an AAU champion in the freestyle, the butterfly, and the individual medley. He was primarily a sprinter, however, and in 1960 the only butterfly event on the schedule was the 200 metre butterfly. Larson competed at the Olympic Trials in the 200 butterfly but failed to make the team, finishing fourth. In the 100 metre freestyle, however, he won the Trials. Speaking years later, he has admitted that it is unlikely he could have beaten a healthy Jeff Farrell.

At Rome, the heats of the 100 freestyle were uneventful, as Larson, Devitt, Henricks, and Manuel dos Santos (BRA) all won their heats. The semi-finals were marked only by Jon Henricks failing to qualify, with the three heats being won by Devitt, Dos Santos, and Larson. Larson had the fastest semi-final time of 55.5, with Devitt posting a 55.8, both far from Devitt's world record of 54.6.

The finals were held on Friday, 26 August, at 9:10 (2110) at night. Dos Santos started the fastest and led at 50 metres, with Devitt and Larson equal second at the turn. Dos Santos faded over the last 50 metres and Devitt came on with a rush. Larson also closed, but more slowly, catching Devitt again at about 80 metres. It appeared to most observers that Larson barely out-touched Devitt, although the result was very close. Before getting out of the pool, Devitt congratulated Lance Larson.

The 1960 Olympics were held in the days prior to automatic starting pistols, automatic touch pads, and electronic timing. There was an electronic timer at Rome, but it was used as a back-up system only. Results in 1960 were decided by finish judges who relied on their eyes and did not use replays. There were three first-place judges and three second-place judges. Of the three first-place judges, they were split, 2-1, favoring Devitt. The three second-place judges also favored Devitt for second, by 2-1. Therefore, the six judges were split, 3-3, in terms of who won.

There were three official timers in 1960 for each lane and swimmer, all timing by hand. All three timers for Devitt, in lane three, timed him in 55.2 seconds. The three timers for lane four, had timed Larson in 55.0, 55.1, and 55.1 seconds; thus timing seemed to favor Larson. The judges then turned to the electronic back-up timer to break the tie. The electronic timing had Larson in 55.10 seconds and Devitt in 55.16 seconds, a difference of about 4 inches. Using both the hand times and the electronic times, Larson's time should have been listed as 55.1 seconds, with Devitt at 55.2.

After a long delay, the chief judge, Henry Runströmer of Sweden cast the deciding vote and declared Devitt the winner. He ruled that Larson would be given the time of 55.2 seconds. However, the rules at that time did not provide for the chief judge to have a vote or give him the right to break ties. Ties were supposed to be broken by referring to the timing machine. The United States' team appealed. The appeal jury, headed by Jan de Vries (NED), also the President of the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) in 1960, rejected the appeal, keeping Devitt the winner.

Max Ritter was Treasurer of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1960, and was also a member of the Executive Committee of FINA. There was also one Australian member on the FINA Executive Committee. Ritter took the protest at Rome to FINA, again headed by Jan de Vries, and again it was rebuffed by the Executive Committee by a vote of 5-3. After the Rome Olympics, the protests did not end. Max Ritter took it as his personal mission to see that Lance Larson received the gold medal Ritter thought he had earned. Over the next four years, he continued to file official protests, first with the entire membership of FINA, and finally with the International Olympic Committee. They were all rejected. The result stood. Thus John Devitt was declared the champion and received a gold medal at Rome, while Lance Larson received a silver medal. They were declared co-holders of the Olympic record in 55.2 seconds, a time Larson assuredly had bettered.

Ritter mainly blamed Bertil Sällfors of Sweden for the result, who was the secretary-general of FINA in 1960. In an article in Amateur Athlete, Ritter wrote, “This whole sorry mess can be attributed to the incompetence of the then secretary of FINA, Bertil Sällfors of Sweden. As a FINA secretary of long-standing, he should have known that in the FINA swimming competitions, such as the Olympic Games, no vote is ever bestowed upon the chief judge (when there is controversy). Sällfors argued that in Sweden, they give the chief judge a vote; however, Olympic Games in Rome are different from competitions in Sweden. If Sällfors would have followed regular FINA procedure and would not have given the chief judge a vote, we could have registered a clear-cut result, such as always is the endeavour in international competition.”

In some of his writings about the protest, Ritter noted, “When I questioned the chief judge how he came to vote for Devitt as the winner, he stated that he stood at the finish line and saw clearly that Devitt outtouched Larson at the finish.” However, a photograph of the finish in Sports Illustrated incriminates Runströmer's ability to accurately judge the finish. First of all, he was opposite lane 8, five and six lanes from Devitt and Larson. Secondly, he is five yards away from the finish line, so he was not looking down at the touch pads directly, but only at an angle from 25 yards away.

Relay races at Rome helped bring some justice to the story. Lance Larson did not swim on the 4 x 200 metre freestyle relay team for the U.S., which won a gold medal, but he swam the butterfly leg for the medley relay, thus earning his gold medal in that event. Devitt did swim in the 4 x 200 relay, helping Australia to a bronze medal.

John Devitt was a great swimmer whose career has been somewhat tainted by all the controversy surrounding his Olympic victory. His Olympic record includes two gold, one silver, and one bronze medal. He won three gold medals at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, broke 14 world records (4 individual, 10 team), and won 13 Australian championships (3 individual and 10 team). Devitt thinks he won the race. He feels that the timekeepers had a poor view of the finish and missed his underwater touch. “I started to take another stroke with my left hand, but I was so close to the wall that I reached out more with my right while it was under water and I think it was not seen,” Devitt stated in later years. He retired from swimming after the Rome Olympics.

Lance Larson attended dental school after the Olympics, and also retired from international competition. But in the mid-1970's he began swimming competitively again in Masters' competition and has become a multiple record setter and champion in that field. He has become rather philosophical about the controversy. “We all compete, to some degree, looking for recognition and a measure of fame. The one good thing about the decision is that it has kept my name in the public eye longer than it would have if I had been declared the champion,” Larson commented. He also feels he won the race. “I think John has had to live with the feeling for many years that he probably didn't really win that gold medal.” Larson and Devitt met again for the first time more than 20 years after the race and got on very well, by Larson's reports.

The result of the controversy was that FINA decided that electronic timing was a necessity to avoid such problems in the future. Since the 1968 Olympics, all international swim races have been timed electronically. But the result still reads: Rome - 1960 - 100 metre freestyle: 1. Devitt 55.2, 2. Larson 55.2. There's often a lot behind those lines.

Final Standings

Rank Athlete Age Team NOC Medal
1 John Devitt 23 Australia AUS Gold OR
2 Lance Larson 20 United States USA Silver OR
3 Manuel dos Santos Filho 21 Brazil BRA Bronze
4 Bruce Hunter 21 United States USA
5 Gyula Dobay 22 Hungary HUN
6 Dick Pound 18 Canada CAN
7 Aubrey Bürer 21 South Africa RSA
8 Per-Ola Lindberg 20 Sweden SWE
3 h2 r2/3 Andrzej Salamon 24 Poland POL
4 h1 r2/3 Keigo Shimizu 21 Japan JPN
4 h2 r2/3 Jon Henricks 25 Australia AUS
4 h3 r2/3 Karri Käyhkö 22 Finland FIN
5 h1 r2/3 Igor Luzhkovsky 22 Soviet Union URS
5 h2 r2/3 Uwe Jacobsen 19 Germany GER
5 h3 r2/3 Katsuki Ishihara 21 Japan JPN
6 h1 r2/3 Cam Grout 20 Canada CAN
6 h2 r2/3 László Lantos 21 Hungary HUN
6 h3 r2/3 Bernard Aluchna 23 Poland POL
7 h1 r2/3 Paul Voell 25 Germany GER
7 h2 r2/3 Vitaly Sorokin 24 Soviet Union URS
7 h3 r2/3 Ron Kroon 17 Netherlands NED
8 h1 r2/3 Alain Gottvallès 18 France FRA
8 h2 r2/3 Jorge Escalante 20 Mexico MEX
8 h3 r2/3 Ezio Della Savia 18 Italy ITA
3 h4 r1/3 Bengt Nordwall 19 Sweden SWE
3 h6 r1/3 Rubén Roca 19 Cuba CUB
4 h1 r1/3 Gert Kölli 20 Austria AUT
4 h4 r1/3 Jan Bouwman 24 Netherlands NED
4 h5 r1/3 Stanley Clarke 22 Great Britain GBR
4 h6 r1/3 Janez Kocmur 22 Yugoslavia YUG
5 h1 r1/3 Herlander Ribeiro 17 Portugal POR
5 h2 r1/3 Achmad Dimyati 21 Indonesia INA
5 h4 r1/3 Amiram Trauber 21 Israel ISR
5 h5 r1/3 Fernando de Abreu 16 Brazil BRA
5 h6 r1/3 Giorgio Perondini 22 Italy ITA
6 h1 r1/3 Leopoldo Rodés 21 Spain ESP
6 h2 r1/3 Luis Nicolao 16 Argentina ARG
6 h3 r1/3 Gérard Gropaiz 17 France FRA
6 h4 r1/3 Cheung Kin Man 28 Hong Kong HKG
6 h5 r1/3 Gudmunður Gíslason 19 Iceland ISL
6 h6 r1/3 Phan Hữu Dong 21 South Vietnam VNM
6 h7 r1/3 William O'Donnell 18 Great Britain GBR
7 h1 r1/3 René Wagner 22 Luxembourg LUX
7 h2 r1/3 Fong Seow Jit 18 Malaya MAL
7 h3 r1/3 Peter Bärtschi 24 Switzerland SUI
7 h5 r1/3 Freddie Elizalde 20 Philippines PHI
7 h6 r1/3 Ünsal Fikirci 20 Turkey TUR
7 h7 r1/3 Gojko Arneri 24 Yugoslavia YUG
8 h2 r1/3 Alfred Grixti 17 Malta MLT
8 h5 r1/3 Christopher Dowling 16 Malta MLT
8 h7 r1/3 Itzhak Luria 19 Israel ISR