The Race That Changed Olympic Swimming | Strangest Moments

The Race That Changed Olympic Swimming | Strangest Moments

September 24, 2019 77 By Ronny Jaskolski


“Faster, Higher, Stronger” – the unimpeachable motto
of the Olympic Games. Yet for Lance Larson,
a 20-year-old American swimmer at the 1960 Olympic Games in
Rome, being fastest didn’t
necessarily translate into gold. The story of why that was so remains one of
the most controversial in Olympic Games history because, in 1960, for all the stopwatches,
timekeepers and cameras, you still had to convince
the judges that you were the winner too, and that was something Larson
couldn’t quite manage to do. 10,000 fans flocked to the spectacular swimming
arena in Rome that night, the first weekend action
of the Games. Two of the sport’s brightest
stars were ready to shine beneath the open skies. Larson had clocked the fastest time in the heats. His closest challenger was John Devitt of Australia. Everyone knew it was
head-to-head between Devitt and Larson for the gold. With all eyes
on the middle two lanes, the Brazilian,
Manuel dos Santos, in lane six, flew into a healthy lead
down the first 50 metres. Dos Santos led at the turn, but Devitt and Larson
were just getting started. Devitt hauled himself into the
lead, but Larson carved himself through the water too and pulled alongside
his great rival. The two men touched the wall. Everyone seemed to agree,
Larson had edged it. But an official told him
it wasn’t the case. Here was the problem. In 1960, there were
three timekeepers at the end of every lane, measuring the time of each
swimmer. The three stopwatches measuring Devitt
were all agreed. The three stopwatches recording
Larson were only slightly
different. The rules state that if two
times were the same, that was official. Larson was one tenth of a
second quicker than Devitt. But the swimming authorities of
1960 didn’t believe the instruments. They had judges too, 24 of
them, 12 in each side of the pool, whose job it was to decide who finished first. This was much closer. Three judges were asked who they thought finished
first. Two said Devitt and one said
Larson. Then three judges were asked who they thought finished
second. Two said Devitt. One said Larson. Six judges – three thought
Devitt won, three said Larson. It was a dead heat. The rules said that ties like
this should have sent the officials
to the timing machine. But instead, the chief judge, Hans Runstromer of Germany,
stepped in. Runstromer said that both
Devitt and Larson should be given the same time, but that Devitt alone was
champion. The American team appealed. It was thrown out, but the incident had shaken the
sport to its core. The Olympic Committee decided to replace those fallible
humans with electronic sensors. By 1968, stopwatches and judges were a thing of the past
in the pool. And 40 years later, the greatest Olympic swimmer
of all time was very grateful for that. In 2008, US swimmer Michael
Phelps was on course for the best
Olympic Games performance ever achieved by an individual. He was going for a seventh
gold medal of the Games in the 100 metres butterfly. Standing in the way was
Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, who was not interested
in the Phelps fairy tale. And is it Cavic or Phelps? It’s too close to call. It’s Phelps by one
one-hundredth of a second. Gold medal number seven. Phelps went on to win
eight gold medals in Beijing, breaking Mark Spitz’s record. It was one of the greatest
Olympic Games stories ever written, and perhaps
that story owes a credit to John Devitt and Lance
Larson. Neither man would return
to the Olympic Games, but the legacy of
their famous race lives on.