These days technology seems to be taking over the role of referees and umpires in almost every sporting arena. Whilst not always providing conclusive results the tension and drama resulting from the instant analysis of the TV replay is common-place in football, rugby, tennis, cricket as well and several other sports. Whether we approve of the disruption or not it seems unlikely that the technology is going away any time soon. 

Life was not always so, and in the relatively recent past, we relied on somewhat cruder methods to decide on the big decisions. Swimming has never, fortunately, been particularly noted for controversy but that’s not to say that it hasn’t had its moments.

The other day I came across an interesting story from the 1960 Olympics held in Rome surrounding the Men’s 100m Freestyle final. It concerned the winner who never was and how the race had an impact forty years later on one of the greatest ever performances seen at the Olympics. You may already be familiar with it but, if not, the details are fascinating.

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

Going into the race the two hot favourites were an American, twenty year old Lance Larson and his Australian rival John Davitt. As predicted, the race was a thriller. At the turn, it was, in fact, the eventual Bronze medalist, the Brazilian Manuel dos Santos who held a slim lead but both Larson and Davitt powered down the second fifty touching virtually together at the finish. But who had won? Who had Gold and who had Silver?

The decision initially lay with the small army of timer-keepers stationed at the end wall. Each lane was allocated three judges who all timed the race with stop-watches. The judges in Davitt’s lane were unanimous; they all recorded a time of 55.2 seconds. However, there was disagreement in Larson’s lane. Two judges timed him at 55.0 seconds but one recorded a time of 55.1. The discrepancy became crucial.

Supposedly if two of the three times were the same, that became the official result, in which case the race would have been awarded to Lawson. However, in this instance, it was decided to reject all the stop-watch results as being unreliable and, because there was no overall agreement, regarding Lawson’s time the results from a second group of judges stationed at the side of the pool was invoked.

They were not concerned with the time at all. They merely had to decide on the order in which the swimmers had finished. Again, they worked in groups of three with three judges deciding who had come first, three deciding who had come second, and so on. 

The problem came when it emerged that the result was so tight these judges also could not conclusively separate the swimmers. Of the judges deciding who had won, two came out in favour of Davitt. The gold seemed to be going to the Australian. However, when the results of the officials deciding who had come second were analysed it showed that two of them also thought that Davitt had come second! In other words, of the six people adjudicating by this second method, three thought Davitt had won and three thought Lawson had. Stalemate.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

The final decision came down to the Head Judge, a German called Hans Runstromer. His decision seemed a little eccentric if not downright bizarre. Instead of reverting to the stop-watch results, Runstromer declared that both swimmers should be given the same finish time of 55.2 seconds but that Davitt alone should be awarded the Gold medal. This despite the fact that all three of the lane judges at the side of the pool had given Lawson a faster time than that and, of the twelve judges involved in adjudicating the race, nine of them had given the result to the American.

Appeals fell on deaf ears and Lawson had to settle for Silver. If you like, you can decide for yourself who you thought won by watching the excellent YouTube video “The Race That Changed Olympic Swimming” which tells the tale and shows the finish. However, it is impossible to be certain from the footage whether Lawson was robbed of his Gold or not. Besides, Davitt later claimed that he touched the wall first with the hand which was underwater which further complicates matters for those trying to decide. As Davitt later admitted the result was so close that not even the swimmers themselves can ever know for sure who had actually won.

And how does all this affect that later Olympic achievement? Well, one of the legacies of the race was to phase out the manual timers. By the next Olympic Games held in 1968, the banks of judges had been replaced by the far more reliable electronic touchpads which allowed far more accurate times to be recorded. In 1988 at the Beijing Olympics Michael Phelps was to be particularly grateful for this accuracy as he beat Mark Spitz’s record in winning no less than eight Gold medals. His seventh Gold in the 100m Butterfly was another nail-bitingly close finish as he beat Milorad Cavic of Serbia by the narrowest of margins. His time of 50.58 seconds was a new Olympic record. But his margin of victory? A mere one-hundredth of a second! 

It would have been interesting to hear the views of Lance Lawson on that!  




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