Throwback Thursday: Remembering Lance Larson – When Silver Was Faster Than Gold


by JOHN LOHN – EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

25 January 2024, 06:10am

Throwback Thursday: Remembering Lance Larson – When Silver Was Faster Than Gold

As we remember Lance Larson, who passed away last week, this week’s Throwback Thursday focuses on his iconic and controversial showdown with Australian John Devitt in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. This piece is a chapter from John Lohn’s book, Below the Surface: The History of Competitive Swimming.

His career included NCAA championships for the University of Southern California. He was a world-record holder in multiple events. He was the first man in history to break the minute barrier in the 100-meter butterfly. He was enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 1980.

What Lance Larson did not claim during his career was an individual Olympic gold medal, the defining achievement of any athlete in the sport. But that missing tally on Larson’s ledger was no fault of his own. Rather, Larson’s name is forever linked to one of the biggest controversies in Olympic lore.

At the 1960 Olympics, automatic-timing technology was still in its infancy and, therefore, not trusted as the ultimate judge of the races contested in Rome. Instead, the chore of identifying the finishing order was handed to 24 judges – three officials for each of the eight lanes in the pool. Meanwhile, the timing system was viewed as a backup device to be used only under extenuating circumstances. Through Olympic history, the use of judges had never been a problem, and there was no reason to believe anything would change.

An assessment of the 100-meter freestyle suggested the battle for the gold medal was a two-man affair, matching Larson and Australian world-record holder John Devitt. While Larson was riding a wave of momentum after winning the event at the United States Olympic Trials in 55.0, Devitt held the fastest time in history at 54.6. Barring an upset, those men were going to take gold and silver. But in what order?

After the final concluded, there still wasn’t a clear answer.

Devitt entered the 1960 Games as an Olympic veteran, having won the silver medal in the 100 freestyle in 1956. With a pair of world-record performances in a 10-day span in 1957, Devitt stamped himself as the man to beat on the way to Rome. But Larson was no pushover, his credentials as the world-record holder in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley reflecting his versatility. However, neither of those events appeared on the 1960 Olympic schedule, which meant Larson had to place his focus elsewhere. The 100 freestyle was his choice.

Larson and Devitt had no trouble winning their respective heats in the preliminary and semifinal rounds, their showdown in the final a much-anticipated affair. Could Devitt improve from silver to gold and follow countryman Jon Henricks onto the top step of the podium? Or, would Larson restore the title in the sport’s blue-ribbon event to the country that produced former champions and legends Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller?

As expected, Larson and Devitt battled side by side for their two laps, the Australian slightly ahead at the 80-meter mark. But a flourish in the final strokes by Larson enabled the American to pull even with Devitt, the men seemingly touching at the same time, Brazil’s Manuel dos Santos back in the bronze-medal position.

As frenetic as the race was, it couldn’t match the confusion and controversy that erupted at the finish. Of the three judges who were charged with determining the first-place finisher, two cited Devitt as the winner. However, the three judges selecting the second-place finisher were also split in their decisions, two choosing Devitt for second place and one selecting Larson as the runnerup. When the results of the six judges were combined, there was a deadlock over the winner. Three picked Devitt. Three named Larson.

When the automatic-timing system was consulted, another story was told. All three stopwatches assigned to Devitt revealed a time of 55.2. For Larson, the stopwatches returned times of 55.0, 55.1 and 55.1. At that point, technology deemed Larson the winner of the race, and because the stopwatches were considered the backup timers, Larson was viewed as the presumptive gold medalist.

That thought was quickly reversed.

Despite no written language in the bylaws allowing for the chief judge to rule on the outcome of a race, Germany’s Hans Runstromer declared Devitt the champion and Larson the silver medalist, much to the chagrin of Larson and the United States contingent.

“I don’t understand,” Larson said. “I don’t understand.”

Larson wasn’t the only individual perplexed by the decision. Max Ritter, the United States’ delegate to FINA and a founder of the international governing body, knew the chief judge was not to have a say in the case of a tie. Rather, he knew the referee was expected to consult the backup timing system and abide by its readouts. In this case, Larson would have been declared the gold medalist, with Devitt taking the silver medal. But Runstromer remained firm in his decision and added insult when Larson’s final time was changed to 55.2, simply to match Devitt’s mark and to make the outcome look reasonable. After all, the Olympic champion couldn’t possibly have a slower time than the silver medalist.

Irate with the decision, Ritter called the situation “unbelievable.” Meanwhile, the United States appealed the decision, citing the rule that the electronic-timing system should have been consulted, and Runstromer should not have involved himself in the selection of the winner. As for Devitt, he was not pleased with the United States’ decision to challenge the result.

“All I did was swim,” Devitt said. “(Larson) took it badly. But he can’t be crooked on me. I don’t know who won, and Larson can’t know either. If the judges change their placings, I am perfectly willing to give the medal back. I have always been taught to accept the judge’s decision.”

With the gold medal in his pocket, it was easy for Devitt to announce he would respect a judge’s verdict against him. However, placed in Larson’s shoes, would he truly have accepted the outcome? He never got the chance to fulfill his words, as FINA rejected the United States’ appeal.

In Rome, Devitt added a bronze medal in the 800 freestyle relay while Larson won a gold medal for handling the butterfly leg on the United States’ victorious 400 medley relay.

Although Larson’s Olympic days ended without a solo crown, he remained a prominent figure in the sport. As a Masters swimmer, he registered times that were on par – and sometimes faster – than when he was setting records during the prime of his career.

“I think it’s the competition that motivates me more than anything else,” Larson said of his Masters involvement. “I enjoy winning, and the recognition that goes along with it. It’s sort of like being on stage again. Sort of an ego trip.”

If there was a positive development out of Larson’s loss, it was the decision by FINA to prominently utilize electronic-timing systems, and eliminate the guessing game that arose in Rome. Of course, the move in that direction came at a price.

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