Swimming

Australian Olympic Champion John Devitt Passes Away at Age 86

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By Riley Overend on SwimSwam

Olimpiadi

John Devitt, a decorated Australian swimmer who won the controversial 100-meter freestyle final at the 1960 Rome Olympics, died Thursday in Sydney “after a long illness” at 86 years old.

At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Devitt won gold in the men’s 4×200 freestyle relay and added silver in the 100 free. Four years later, he captured the 100 free crown after a disputed finish against 20-year-old California native Lance Larson, making Devitt the first Australian to ever win the event. He also brought home Olympic bronze in 1960 as a member of Australia’s 4×200 free relay team, broke 14 world records including relays, and captured 13 Australian national titles.

Six decades ago, Olympic results were decided by nine judges — three who picked the first-place finisher, three who picked the second-place finisher, and three who picked the third-place finisher. Two of three first-place judges chose Devitt as the winner of the 100 free at the 1960 Olympics, but two of the three second-place judges also determined Devitt as the second-place finisher instead of Larson.

There was also a new timing machine that started automatically but stopped manually, and it clocked Larson at 55.10 and Devitt at 55.16. The timing machine was slated to be used as the tiebreaker, but chief judge Hans Runstromer overruled the machine in favor of Devitt and awarded him the gold despite three appeals from the Americans over the next four years.

Runstromer claimed to have seen the result standing on the finish line, but a photograph revealed he was actually 25 yards away at the time. In 2009, a study in the journal Physical Culture and Sport: Studies and Research found that “Runstromer’s decision undoubtedly sanctioned untruth.” Major international meets have used electronic timing since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Devitt was born in Sydney in 1937 and started swimming at 4 years old. He reportedly trained swimming against currents of water discharged from a nearby power plant.

After the 1960 Olympics, Devitt retired and married his wife, Wendy, in 1961. He was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1979.

Devitt served as the European manager for Speedo and started his own swimming equipment company. He also spent time in charge of Swimming Australia from 2000-04 after helping bring the 2000 Olympics to Sydney as a longtime official of the Australian Olympic Committee.

“John has made an enormous contribution to the Australian Olympic movement and Australian sport in many varied ways,” said Australian Olympic Committee president Ian Chesterman. “Twice an Olympic champion, a holder of world records, an executive member and Vice President and a Life Member. He embodied the Olympic spirit. He provided great leadership to many. Always calm and considered, he provided support to many younger administrators, encouraging them to forge a pathway and make a difference.

“In more recent years, John’s passion for Olympic sport and Olympic history saw him publish a compelling history of an Olympic legend in Cecil Healy,” Chesterman added. “In spite of ill health, John pursued this project with enormous vigor. As a consequence, we now have the Cecil Healy Award for Outstanding Sportsmanship which can be awarded after each Olympic Games. John was an incredibly decent person and will be sorely missed. Our sincerest condolences to John’s wife Wendy and all of John’s family and many friends.”

SwimSwam: Australian Olympic Champion John Devitt Passes Away at Age 86

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