Silver McKee misses out in closest medley race ever

You always get close races at the Olympic Games. It's one of the aspects of competition that makes it such compelling viewing – the knowledge that the very best athletes in the world are going head-to-head and the fact that margins between winning and losing can be so tight.

Picture by IOC

But, of all the close races ever, has there ever been a more unfortunate silver medallist than America's Tim McKee? During his Olympic career, McKee won three Olympic medals, all of them silver, and in Munich he had the closest near-miss one could imagine.

It happened in the 400m individual medley, where he was pitched against the Swede, Gunnar Larsson.

Both recorded an Olympic record time of 4:31.98 and there was a general assumption that a dead heat would be announced with both swimmers being awarded gold. However, after a consultation that lasted about eight minutes, the judges decreed that they would use timings taken to the thousandths of a second.

By this standard they proclaimed Larsson the winner by 0.002secs - McKee was said to have been two-thousandths of a second slower, losing by the margin of 4:31.981 to 4:31.983.

The decision provoked controversy – and changes in the sport. As a result of that race, the rules were changed to declare a dead-heat between racers whose time was the same to hundredths of a second. But for McKee, eventually known to his friends as “Silver McKee”, the change came too late.

Four days later, the two swimmers met again, this time in the final of the 200m individual medley, and again Larsson prevailed, this time without controversy as he won by more than a second, setting a new world record in the process.

For Larsson, who had also taken part in the 1968 Games, this was to be his last Olympic competition. McKee returned to the Olympics four years later, where he again swam the 400m individual medley. There was no Larsson to beat this time, but Rod Strachan emerged to snatch gold, leaving McKee with his third silver medal.

McKee retired from swimming after that and took a job in marketing. But he later gave up that well-paid position and took a considerable paycut to return to the water. Not as an athlete, but as a lifeguard on Miami Beach.


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