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Martin Kane
September 05, 1960
As the Olympics began, good will flourished amid awesome pageantry, but a flap was just hours away
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September 05, 1960

Splendor And Spleen

As the Olympics began, good will flourished amid awesome pageantry, but a flap was just hours away

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The XVII Olympiad opened in Rome last week with a Latin extravaganza of pageantry, a papal blessing and firm expressions of unalloyed good will on all sides. The pageantry began Thursday evening and never stopped. The unalloyed good will lasted 49 hours and 10 minutes.

The U.S. was involved in the sudden rupture of accord—not, as might have been expected, with the Russians, but with the Australians. The battleground was the Stadio del Nuoto, the time was Saturday night, and the event was swimming—specifically, the finals of the men's 100-meter freestyle. The Americans, cheered by a 400-meter medley relay qualifying time of 4:08.2 that surpassed the Australian world record of 4:10.4, pitted Lance Larson of California against Australian star John Devitt, who holds the world record of 54.6 seconds.

It was the closest race of the Games to that point, 1.1 seconds separating first place from eighth. The Stadio audience shrieked as the swimmers hit the 50-meter turn almost in unison, kicked off in torpedolike glides and flailed back toward the finish. A wave, caused in part by the inadequately filled pool, hit Larson in lane four at the turn and may well have cost him the victory. As it was, he and Devitt closed in what a horse track judge would have called a photo finish.

Larson said later that he saw Devitt to his left in the adjoining lane three, realized that he could not bring his trailing left arm over in time to touch home with it ahead of Devitt and so stretched out his right to touch the wall underwater. It seems likely that the judges, grouped at either side of the pool, did not see this underwater touch, particularly since not a single first-place judge was in direct line with the finish. Devitt touched above water, his hand clearly visible. Three timers huddled over lane four clocked Larson at 55.1 seconds. Three timers huddled over lane three clocked Devitt at 55.2 seconds. The judges, as they have a right to do under swimming's rules, ignored the timers and awarded the gold medal to Devitt, officially changing Larson's time to 55.2 also. This is an Olympic record that Devitt will have credit for in the books, because he won the race.

Larson, a tall and fiercely competitive blond, was victimized by the confusion of tongues that prevails at all Olympic Games. "Did I win? Did I win?" he shouted from the water, and one of the foreign judges beamed at him. Larson thought it was a smile of congratulations—it probably was amusement over his boyish eagerness—and flipped joyously backward, kicking off in a long glide to celebrate what he thought was victory. And so thought the crowd, which cheered him.

Then the official decision was announced. A few minutes later a grim Larson stood on the silver-medal level as the band played God Save the Queen and Devitt received the gold medal. The third-place bronze went to Manoel Dos Santos of Brazil. American team officials protested pro forma but expected nothing to come of it. Nothing did.

It is an old problem to the world's swimming fraternity, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 20 years in a futile effort to solve it. Electronic devices to record the winner's touch cannot be used in swimming pools, partly for fear of electrocuting the contestants. Photographs do not show underwater touches. The human eye and the human thumb, both fallible, determine winner and time, and since judges outrank timers, the eye usually prevails.

Australian fans, inappropriately surly for victors, accosted Americans with charges of poor sportsmanship for protesting. W. Berg Phillips, Australian vice-president of the F�d�ration Internationale de Natation Amateur, snarled at a group of American swimmers at poolside: "We rubbed your noses in it. And we'll show you some more before we're through." By the Sabbath the good will the Games are supposed to engender had yielded, at least temporarily, to a furious flap. It was settled, but only formally, by denial of the American protest.

The next day U.S. officials threatened to carry the dispute to the International Olympic Committee on the basis of new evidence, on film. They also claimed that the chief judge had participated in the decision for Devitt, contrary to Olympic rules.

The Americans also were disappointed in the women's three-meter dive, an event that turned up a rather poor general level of performance. Mrs. Paula Jean Myers Pope, the United States' best hope off the springboard and tower, got off to a low-scoring start. Despite a magnificent recovery in the closing dives, she took only a silver medal. The gold was won by Germany's Ingrid Kramer, a buxom 17-year-old with a brilliant style. The result was a shock to the U.S., which has never lost this event. Third went to Britain's Elizabeth Ferris, winner of the first British medal in diving since 1924. Not only that, Britain took its first gold medal of the 1960 Games when Anita Lonsbrough splashed home first in the 200-meter breaststroke, catching the leading German contestant, Wiltrud Urselmann, in the closing 25 meters.

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