Lance Larson, ‘winner’ of the most controversial swim race in Olympic history, is dead at 83

Lance Larson, ‘winner’ of the most controversial swim race in Olympic history, is dead at 83

For 15 glorious minutes at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico del Nuoto on the opening night of the swimming competition, Lance Larson was celebrated as an Olympic champion.

Moments earlier on the night of August 26, 1960, Larson, the El Monte High School and USC standout, overtook in the closing meters and then out-touched Australia’s John Devitt to win the 100-meter freestyle final. Devitt congratulated Larson on his victory. Photographers crowded around his lane snapping photos of the new gold medalist.

Larson even took a victory lap around the Olimpico del Nuoto pool deck.

“And then we started hearing whispers,” Larson would later recall.

Larson lost his gold medal in what more than 60 years later remains the most controversial swimming race in Olympic history when Devitt was single-handily awarded the Olympic title by a judge who had exceeded his authority in a decision that prompted changes in how swimming results are determined and led to more than six decades of criticism of the International Olympic Committee not only for not interceding in Rome but failing to undo the injustice by not awarding Larson a gold medal in the ensuing years.

“It was a bad deal,” Larson later said.

Larson, who went on to be a longtime dentist in Orange, died on January 19. He was 83.

Olympic swimmer Lance Larson died Jan. 19, 2023, at the age of 83. (Contributed photo) 

A celebration of life will be held March 1 at 11 a.m. at the Garden Grove Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in Garden Grove. In lieu of flowers, contributions in memory of Larson may be made to the Trojan Victory Fund supporting the USC men’s and women’s swimming and diving program.

Blonde, tan and tall (6-feet-1, 174 pounds), Larson looked like he had dove into the waters of Olimpico del Nuoto straight off the silver screen of one of the beach films that were gaining popularity at the time, the ultimate Southern California golden boy.

At El Monte High School he was the first prep swimmer to break the 50-second barrier in the 100-yard freestyle and the first man in the world to break the one-minute barrier in the 100-meter butterfly.

In Rome, Australia’s Jon Henricks, the defending Olympic champion, was eliminated in the semifinals leaving the focus in the 100 freestyle final on Devitt, the current world record-holder at 54.6 seconds, and Larson, then 20.

The pool’s lights were dimmed for the final for dramatic effect, a decision that observers said led to the post race confusion.

Brazil’s Manuel Dos Santos led early but was passed by Larson and Devitt with 25 meters to go. Larson touched the final wall underwater, Devitt reaching the finish with a touch out of the water. Peter Daland, USC’s Hall of Fame head coach, later said Larson won the race by half a foot.

“Everybody down there told me I had won,” Larson told reporters after the race.

Indeed the three timers timing Larson had him finishing in 55.0, 55.1 and 55.1. The timers timing Devitt all clocked him in 55.2. But the results at the time were determined not by time but by finishing judges. The three first place judges voted Devitt the winner by a 2-1 vote. But the three second place judges also determined that Devitt was the runner-up by 2-1 vote. An newly developed automatic electronic timing system recorded Larson in 55.10 and Devitt in 55.16. But the system at the time was not used for official purposes.

Despite Larson’s edge in both the manual and electronic timing, the swimming competition’s chief judge, Hans Runstromer of West Germany, who had no authority over the matter, took it upon himself to declare Devitt the Olympic champion and ordered Larson’s time changed to 55.2, the same as Devitt’s, a new Olympic record.

Runstromer insisted he had been at the finishing line at the end of the race. But photographs and video clearly showed him five meters down the side of the dimly lit pool as far away as 25 meters from where Larson and Devitt finished.

U.S. officials appealed Runstromer’s ruling to no avail.

”One man got the time and the other got the gold medal,” Larson later said.

R. Max Ritter, one of the founding members of swimming’s international governing body, FINA, now World Aquatics, fought unsuccessfully for decades to have the Rome results corrected.

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“Physical Culture and Sport: Studies and Research,” an academic journal determined in 2009 that “Runstromer’s decision undoubtedly sanctioned untruth.”

But the IOC has refused to overturn that untruth, a point that was highlighted in 2002 when the IOC awarded Canada figure skating pairs Jamie Sale and David Pelletier gold medals during the Salt Lake City judging scandal.

Devitt died last August after a long illness. He was 86.

“I think,” Larson once told the New York Times, “John has had to live with the feeling for many years that he probably didn’t really win that gold medal.”