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Rome 1960

The Olympic Games in Rome were characterised by an ancient setting that only Athens has ever been able to match. The poster of the Games, showing the twins Remus and Romulus, who were suckled by a she-wolf, and toga-clad Romans celebrating with a victorious athlete, had already highlighted the close connection between ancient and modern history.

ANECDOTE

Runner-up swam faster than Olympic champion

It was an enthralling final. Brazilian Manuel dos Santos was the first to turn after 50 m, but the two favourites began to catch up soon afterwards. Lance Larson (born 3 July 1940) with his far-reaching style caught the jerky John Devitt (born 4 February 1937) after around 90 m. The Australian threw himself with all his strength at the wall, while Larson finished more casually. Almost everyone in the stands thought Larson had won. The American swam butterfly style out of the pool, celebrated and was photographed alongside Devitt, who was thinking, “Only second again, just like in Melbourne.” But then a man pushed his way in between the celebrating swimmers, looked at Devitt with a serious expression on his face and said, “You are the winner.” Chief judge H. Runströmer had taken this decision. Everyone was amazed. The photographers took a new picture of the winner, Larson was totally baffled and the Americans protested, although there was no dialogue with the Swedish chief judge. He just held up the rulebook and said, “It is my decision alone.”

So what had happened? Each swimmer’s time had been recorded by three timekeepers. For Larson, the stopwatches showed times of 55.0, 55.1 and 55.1 seconds. Devitt’s times were all 55.2. Everything seemed clear. However, there were also three first-place judges and three second-place judges. Two thought that Devitt had won and only one favoured Larson. However, two also had Devitt as the runner-up and only one Larson. So the six judges were split, 3-3. The advice of the chief judge was therefore sought and he decided in favour of Devitt, ruling that the times should be ignored. Larson’s time was “rounded up” to 55.2 seconds.

Max Ritter, Treasurer of USOC and member of the FINA Executive Committee, lodged an official protest, which was rejected. Finally, attempts were made to have Devitt and Larson declared joint winners. These were also turned down. It was not until April 1961 that the matter was settled “Solomon-style”: Devitt remained Olympic champion with a time of 55.2 seconds, while Larson’s time of 55.1 seconds was declared an Olympic record. The runner- up could therefore correctly claim that he had swum faster than the Olympic champion… Analysis of the CBS and ARD slow-motion television pictures showed that Larson was indisputably the winner, while the unofficial electronic time for Larson was 0.06 seconds better than Devitt’s. However, neither of these pieces of evidence were accepted.

Devitt, who twice beat the world 100 m freestyle record in his career, retired in 1960 after winning his second Olympic gold medal (he had won the first in the 4 x 200 m freestyle in 1956). He began to work as a television reporter and is now President of Swimming Australia, the Australian swimming federation. Larson, who following the dis appointment of the 100 m freestyle final went on to win an Olympic gold medal in the 400 m medley relay, did not allow the judges’ error to spoil his enjoyment of swimming. The Californian dentist continues to enter masters’ competitions even today.

For OMEGA, the debacle in Rome triggered the development of automatic touch pads. “Such a fully automatic system would be the ideal solution, but I fear that too many technical obstacles will need to be overcome,” wrote Ritter to the OMEGA Timing Department in 1961. By 1967, those obstacles had been surmounted.

TECHNOLOGY

Growing awareness of publicity value

The gradual emergence of television in sports broadcasting across Europe began to have an impact on sports timekeeping. OMEGA’s commercial department had already become aware of the publicity value of sport at the Alpine Ski World Championships in Bad Gastein in 1958. The organisers of the Olympic Games in Rome received money from television for the first time, but airtime was limited (there were no satellites in those days). The BBC broadcast 24 hours 57 minutes, CBS 16 hours 14 minutes and ARD 3 hours 51 minutes over an 18 day period. OMEGA was again responsible for the accuracy of the results, although not all the sports federations were as convinced as the then IOC Chancellor, Otto Mayer. The semi-automatic Swim-O-Matic Timer was used again, although the timekeepers, finish judges and referees decided in what order the competitors finished. The 100 m freestyle final created a huge scandal which kept the world of swimming in suspense for nearly a year. In the Palazzo dello Sport and the Palazzetto dello Sport, OMEGA kept the public informed on giant electronic scoreboards for the first time.


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