Passages: Lance Larson, 1980 ISHOF Honoree Controversially Denied Olympic Gold, Dies at 83

Lance Larson — Photo Courtesy: ISHOF


23 January 2024, 06:29pm

Lance Larson, a former world-record holder in the 100 butterfly and 200 IM and the winner of two Olympic medals at the 1960 Games, passed away  January 19 at age 83. Larson was a longtime resident of Southern California, attending USC before working as a dentist in Orange County later in life while continuing to compete in Masters swimming.

Larson was the first high school swimmer to break 50 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle before becoming the first man to ever break 1:00 in the 100-meter fly, setting the world record on two occasions in 1960 prior to competing at the Rome Olympics. But Larson is best known for what happened in Rome, when a controversial decision by the head judge on deck denied him Olympic gold in the 100 free.

The Olympic swimming program in 1960 consisted of only six individual men’s events plus two relays, with both of Larson’s world-record events omitted. That left the 100 free as his only chance for an individual medal, and Larson faced off with Australia’s John Devitt down the stretch of the race. Larson appeared to touch the wall first, but in a massive controversy, Devitt was declared the winner, leaving Larson with silver.

Larson did, however, earn gold as part of the U.S. men’s 400 medley relay, in which he swam butterfly and his team finished in a world-record mark of 4:05.4. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1980.

A celebration of life for Larson will take place March 1 at 11 a.m. at the Garden Grove Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in Garden Grove, Calif. According to an obituary published in the Orange County Register, Larson’s family is asking for contributions in his memory to be made to the Trojan Victory Fund, which supports the USC men’s and women’s swimming and diving program.


Lance Larson, right, and John Devitt, middle, after a controversial judging decision handed the Australian gold in a 100 freestyle final at Rome 1960 in which Manuel Dos Santos, of Brazil, claimed bronze – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF film still

At the 1960 Games, the relatively-new automatic timing technology was not official in declaring winners and medalists, and neither were the hand-timers placed on deck. Instead, place judges were responsible for determining the order of finish, and two of the three first-place judges said Devitt had gotten to the wall first. However, two of the three second-place judges also ruled for Devitt, forcing the situation into flux.

Hand-timing results were 55.0, 55.1 and 55.1 for Larson and 55.2 from all three timers for Devitt. The automatic timing system said that Larson had gotten to the wall six hundredths ahead of Devitt, 55.10 to 55.16. But that’s when chief judge Hans Runströmer got involved. Runströmer, the chief judge, was not supposed to have any say in determining the order of placement, but he stepped in and ruled in favor of Devitt, even though it appeared that Runströmer did not have a clear view of the finish.

Both of the men were listed with times of 55.2, and while Larson was given the Olympic record, Devitt got the gold medal. An appeal by the American team, which included recorded video evidence and was supported by American FINA official Max Ritter, was unsuccessful, and further attempts to change the results over the years never resulted in Larson receiving gold. Devitt passed away in August at age 86.

The events of that 100 free Olympic final would force change in the sport, with influential voices calling reliable automatic timing in advance of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. And just 12 years later, touchpads would be used to break a tie for Olympic gold, with Sweden’s Gunnar Larsson given the gold in the 400 IM over American Tim McKee by a margin of two thousandths, 4:31.981 to 4:31.983. After that, though, ties to the hundredth resulted in shared Olympic gold medals, and after Americans Larson and McKee were both denied the top prize, three future ties for Olympic gold would all involve at least one American.

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