Olympic Medals
Games Participations2
First Olympic GamesMelbourne 1956
Year of Birth1937


John Devitt was a great swimmer whose career was somewhat tainted by all the controversy surrounding his 1960 Olympic 100 m freestyle victory. At Roma, the pre-Games favorite to 100 m freestyle gold was American Jeff Farrell, but he had an emergency appendectomy just six days before the US Olympic Trials and only qualified for relay duty, which left Devitt a favorite for the Olympic gold, along with reigning Olympic champion Australian Jon Henricks and Brazilian Manuel dos Santos were also considered as favorites. The fastest times in the heats and semifinals were produced by American Lance Larson, but as a butterfly specialist, he was considered an outside contender.

In the Olympic final, dos Santos started the fastest and led at 50 metres, with Devitt and Larson equal second at the turn. Dos Santos faded over the last 50 metres and Devitt came on with a rush. Larson also closed, but more slowly, catching Devitt again at about 80 metres. It appeared to most observers that Larson barely out-touched Devitt, although the result was very close. The 1960 Olympics were held in the days prior to automatic timing so the final standings were decided by finish judges who relied on their eyes and did not use replays. There were three first-place judges and three second-place judges. Of the three first-place judges, they were split, 2-1, favoring Devitt. The three second-place judges also favored Devitt for second, by 2-1. Therefore, the six judges were split, 3-3, in terms of who won. There were three official timers in 1960 for each lane and swimmer, all timing by hand. All three timers for Devitt, in lane three, gave him 55.2 seconds. The three timers for lane four had Larson in 55.0, 55.1, and 55.1 seconds; thus timing seemed to favor Larson, as did back-up unofficial electronic timing. After a long delay, the chief judge, Henry Runströmer of Sweden cast the deciding vote and declared Devitt the winner. He ruled that Larson would be given the time of 55.2 seconds. However, the rules at that time did not provide for the chief judge to have a vote or give him the right to break ties. This led to numerous protests by the American team shortly after the final and even years after the Olympics. The results were never changed, but the result of the controversy was that FINA decided that automatic timing was a necessity to avoid such problems in the future, and since the 1968 Olympics, all international swim races have been timed electronically. Devitt also won 4x200 m freestyle relay bronze at the 1960 Olympics.

Olympic Results

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