Obituary – John Devitt, The Gentleman Aussie Sprinter Who Defied The Clock To Claim Olympic Gold At Rome 1960

2023-08-18 1 comment Reading Time: 10 minutes
John Devitt in his swimming heyday, courtesy of ISHOF

The World of swimming mourns John Devitt, the Australian two-time Olympic and three-time Commonwealth Games freestyle champion.

John, much loved and known as one of the old-world gentlemen of world swimming, passed away peacefully in Sydney on Thursday aged 86. He is survived by his wife Wendy, their four children, Carmel, Mark, Julie, and Sean and grandchildren.

One of the great racers and premier sprinters of his era, Devitt claimed Olympic 100m freestyle gold in controversial circumstances at Rome 1960, American Lance Larson given silver despite two out of three hand-held stopwatches having timed him home faster than the Australian. The rule cited the naked eye as chief adjudicator and the chief judge handed victory to Devitt (read the story below).

Devitt excelled in the pool at a romantic and thrilling time for swimmers. It was an era when swimming was much further up the pecking order of sports that attracted a lot of media attention at national as well as Olympic level. Add Rome to that heady mix and the ancient and the then new made for a Games that linked the past and present to the future at every venue in the Eternal City.

Australia excelled in the pool four years after topping the mighty USA at a home Games at Melbourne 1956. The addition of butterfly in 1956 led to the introduction of 4x100m medley relays for men and women in Rome, taking to 15 the numbers of finals, eight of those for men. Of the 45 nations represented, 42 sent men and 26 sent women. Swimmers from Malta, Puerto Rico, Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and Turkey were seen for the first time.

At the helm of the Aussie men’s team in Rome, Murray Rose (AUS) became the first man to retain the 400m freestyle title and teammate David Theile became the first in 36 years to retain the 100m backstroke title.

Dawn Fraser (AUS) claimed the most decisive 100m freestyle victory at the dawn of modern Olympic history, 1.6sec ahead of the most successful woman of the Games, Christine Von Saltza (USA), who took three golds, her victories unfolding in the 400m freestyle and in two American world-record-breaking relays.

If Fraser dominated, the men’s 100m freestyle belonged to the other end of the spectrum of tightness, the decision of judges setting in motion a wave of controversy that would roll on through the years.

The Devitt Vs Larson 100m Free Final That Accelerated The Age Of Electronic Timing


John Devitt (AUS) was the last swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal in the pool where the human eye was judged preferable to manual timing and the first electronic device that registered manual times to a hundredth of a second.

He entered the rome 100m showdown as world record holder and 1956 silver medal winner. Third at the turn, Devitt took the lead at 70m and looked like the sure winner. But in the closing metres Lance Larson (USA) surged: there was nothing in it at the touch.

Three judges went with the Australia, three with the American, while the clock favoured the American, on 55.0, 55.1 and 55.1 to the Australian’s 55.2, 55.2, 55.2. Some references describe the use of an electronic-timing device but the machine that was used was electronic only in the sense of relaying the data to a printer and recording times to a hundredth of a second. The times registered on the device were in fact manual, the result of an official pressing a button on sight of a swimmer touching the wall, in the same way that a timekeeper stops a hand-held watch.

That electronic readout also had Larson ahead, 55.10 to 55.16. Despite all that evidence, German Hans Runstromer, the chief judge who, under FINA rules had no say in the matter, instructed recorders to change Larson’s time to 55.2 and to grant gold to Devitt. Four years of protests failed to overturn the decision.

The controversy did no harm at all to the work of those looking to a future in which swimming times would be recorded by automatic timing systems:

A clearer view of the Rome 1960 final.

The naked eye sees a fast finish, as Devitt himself noted years later when he told Australian journalists, including Ian Hanson, the journalist, former Dolphins press lead and the Aussie correspondent I hired at Swimming World: “Eight of us hit the wall, almost in line. In the crowd, bedlam turns to ovation, then speculation, then anticipation. Who has won?

“I didn’t know. I knew I had missed the wall with my left hand and started to raise my right, but then stretched out with the left to touch. I had contested four close finishes in my career; I won three of them, having lost one in Melbourne to my old mate [Jon] Henricks. My touch had been recognised as being one of the quickest of all time. And the motto ‘a quick touch wins races’ had been with me for years. I was hoping that touch had worked with me this time.”

Washed away by Australia in 1956, American gladiators fought back in Rome. No nation would top the USA again in Olympic waters until 1988, when GDR women won 11 gold medals, buoyed by State Plan 14:25 and the assisted means of Oral Turinabol and more on the cusp of the end of another era, the wind of political change about to blow the Berlin Wall down.

In 1960, 45 nations sent swimmers to the Rome Games, where the medals table was topped by the USA, with 8 gold and 3 each of the other two colours; Australia followed with 5, 4, 3 and Great Britain made the top 3 with 1 medal of each colour.

The USA Vs Australia rivalry has rippled down the decades and in 2023 remains a hot topic. At Rome 1960, Australian men got the better of their American rivals by one gold medal in Rome (American women dominated, with five gold medals out of seven) – and it was that one gold medal with Devitt granted the win and Larson the silver that caused one of the biggest controversies of the Games. The only other nation with a medal of each colour was Britain, whose gold and the only solo world record to fall among women in Rome were delivered by Anita Lonsbrough in the 200m breaststroke.

The pool at the Foro Italico – later to stage the 1994 and 2009 World Championships as well as Europeans, latterly in 2022, and other events, such as the warm-up event for the International Swimming League – contained two pools connected by a hidden tunnel, from which swimmers emerged in dramatic, gladiatorial style to walk out for their races. The indoor facility provided an ideal training facility, while the outdoor competition pool came complete with the first “wave-breaker” plasticised lane dividers.

A 19-year-old clerk at Huddersfield Corporation in Yorkshire, Lonsbrough had her wages docked for taking time off for training and travel to the Olympics. In Rome, she slept for 12 hours before a final that she won by 0.5sec over Wiltrud Urselmann (GER). Their battle followed the controversy in the 100m freestyle final.

Thirty years later in the summer of 1990, Lonsbrough retraced her 1960 steps during an interview I conducted for The Times. Back at the Studio del Nuoto, she emerged from said tunnel on to the glorious, burning deck of the 1960 Olympic pool, spotted the section of the stand where her mother had sat and stood cheering for her, and recalled the calm she felt because of the delay caused by the 100m freestyle controversy with Devitt and Larson.

“It was a distraction from thinking just about my own race and rivals,” she said. “I’ve thanked John for that delay ever since. By the time we went out to the start, I felt calm and collected.” After her racing days were done, Lonsbrough met Devitt on numerous occasions, in part because she attended many more Olympics and all World Championships as a journalist from the 1970s until her swansong world titles back in Rome in 2009.

Devitt ended his career with two golds (100m, 1960; 4x200m 1956) a silver (100m, 1956) and a bronze (4x200m, 1960), and four individual and 10 relay world records to his credit. Oddly, he did not race the freestyle leg of the Australian medley quartet that claimed silver in Rome behind a US quarter that included Larson and broke the world record.

And more on Lance Larson and his role as a butterfly pioneer:

Happy 80th Birthday Lance Larson – Sub-Minute Butterfly Pioneer Who Triggered The Timepad

Devitt On How They Trained Under the Boardwalk

Talking in 1996 to one of the world’s leading authors on swimming in his day, Cecil Colwin, now deceased, Devitt recalled the way they trained back in the old days. “At White Bay power station, on Sydney Harbour, there was a stretch of water under the wharf that provided a square ‘swimming course,’ and this is where ‘Coach Tom’ decided we would train; ‘under the boardwalk,’ as you might say, hidden from sight,” said Devitt.

Training under the wharf, in the mostly heated, swift-flowing water from the White Bay power station, helped Devitt and his training partners to swim year-round in what were then good conditions and at a time when great facilities were much harder to come by.

Barnacles and oysters flourished in the ‘heated’ seawater. For protection, the swimmers wore shoes when swimming. Devitt told Colwin: “The only suitable shoes available in those days were sand shoes, which allowed us to tread safely on the bottom. The shoes filled up with water and became heavy, hence I developed the sort of ‘2-beat Australian kick’ that stayed with me throughout my career.”

When not sprinting, the swimmers swam around the perimeter of the water course, one square lap equalling 400m. The current flowed into the course at right angles, each side of the square offered a different experience, with and against a flow that changed pace accruing to how many turbines were being used in the power station.

Occasionally, Devitt told Colwin, the turbines would stop and the water temperature would drop from pleasant to 15C cooler: shock and cramps ensued.

Devitt said, “The current enabled us to develop strength and power, and, as we grew older, we took advantage of the speed of the current to learn pace judgement.

“We knew just how fast the current was moving and how long we could stay in a particular spot while swimming against the current. We continued swimming these 400 metre ‘laps’ until we were thankful to hear the coach call a halt. This routine provided quite a good workout. Some of us called it ‘square bashing’.”

The Pier – how it looked in 1996, courtesy of Cecil Colwin and Nick Thierry (RIP, both)

Square Bashing to sprinting with the flow & learning fast turns

“As if square bashing wasn’t enough to keep us fit,” added Devitt, “Tom Penny, always innovative, discovered a canal on the other side of the power station, about 20 metres wide, through which a strong current flowed in one direction. Penny quickly noted that the canal provided the potential for about 120 metres of continuous swimming.

“We knew our coach well, and so we weren’t too surprised when he decided that it would be a good idea for us to swim directly into the current. He didn’t call these ‘effort swims,’ but he would have been considered ahead of his time had he done so.

“After we had swum up against the current in the 120 metres course, we would drift back in its flow to the starting point, all the time practising tumble-turn somersaults on the barnacled walls of the canal. This routine helped us to develop a fast approach into the turn, when actually turning in a proper swimming pool. In this way, we used our time in the water to best effect.”

John Devitt

Beyond The Fast Lane

Born in Granville, west Sydney, on February 4, 1937, John Devitt grew up not much more than four laps of a long-course pool from the local Olympic baths. A government funded learn-to-swim program introduced him to the sport he would excel at.

Down the line, he trained with coach Tom Penny and moved with his mentor when Penny left Granville for Manly (Ocean) Baths. Coach Sam Herford was next to steer the sprinter, honing Devitt’s skills at the Spit Baths with Murray Rose in the lanes alongside him.

Devitt’s Olympic debut delivered a pleasant surprise: he was chosen as team captain.

After his racing days were done, John worked for Speedo and as a coach before he left Australia to work for the kit maker’s international operation. When he returned home after several years, he served as vice-president of the Australian Olympic Committee.

As a Swimming Australia board member and Chairman of Overseas Planning, Devitt played a key role in bringing Don Talbot back as head coach in 1989. Devitt knew, of courses that Talbot was no diplomat and the various clashes down the years came as not surprise.

One of them gets a mention in Talbot’s fine biography “Nothing But The Best” with Ian Heads and Kevin Berry: it involved the no-alcohol team rule that swimming imposed at all events, including the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The AOC, with Devitt as voce-president at the time, agreed to uphold the rule during the home Games but “later backed away from it,” writes Talbot, “leading to a heated exchange between” him and Devitt over whether two female swimmers should be disciplined for having tippled their way across a line, presumably after the swimming was done.

Devitt was ‘vice’ of Swimming Australia at the time, too, serving alongside President and lifelong friend and fellow Olympian Terry Gathercole between 1996 and 2000 taking over as President of Swimming Australia between 2000 and 2004.

Later, Devittt led Australia into the MCG as Chef de Mission of the 2006 Commonwealth Games Team, half a century after claiming the first of his two Olympic golds, with relay mates in the same city.

John’s pantheon does not only include his swimmer’s honours but honours for what he did for swimming, too. He is a recipient of the Olympic Order (a prize much tainted by the IOC’s embrace of world politics); a Life Member of the Australian Olympic Committee and Swimming Australia; an inductee at the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame; and was appointed a Member of Order of Australia (AM).

Devitt’s Tributes To Healy

Cecil Healy – suited for swimming and in uniform during WWI – Photo Courtesy – Courtesy: Healy Family Collection

In February 2008, John Devitt was also awarded the FINA Order for his long and unstinting services to aquatic sports. After his fine career as an athlete, Devitt served in many roles, both professional and as a volunteer, that helped to further the interests of swimming and swimmers.

He was a key figure in the delivering successful major events in Australia, including the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000, the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 2006 and the World Championships in the same city a year later.

In 2017, Devitt was one of two Olympic champions honoured for their contribution to the Manly sporting scene in Sydney: when Manly’s new aquatic centre opened, the name over the door read The Devitt­-Healy Pool.

The facility had been set to be named after Devitt alone, his achievements at Rome 1960 and four years earlier as a member of Australia’s golden 4x200m free quartet in front of a home crowd at Melbourne 1956 topping the bill.

Typical of Devitt, the champ, then 80, intervened. What about Cecil Healy, he asked? Why had he not been considered for the honour? Good question. Cecil was a member of the 4x200m gold medal relay squad in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Mr Devitt, now 80, and a life long member of Manly Amateur Swimming Club, said he was “very humbled” by the plan.

“In 1912 we won the gold and in 1956 we won the gold medal and in 2000 we won the gold — there was 44 years between­ each of those wins,” Devitt told The Australian. “I asked the guy upstairs ‘can I watch the fourth one’, but he hasn’t given me an answer­ yet.”

Unless it unfold sooner, the 2044 Games may feature a heavenly VIP loungeful of legends and coaches placing their bets as they look down, God and transcendency willing.

On his call for Healy to be recognised, Devitt said: “I regard as myself as having had a similar life (to Cecil Healy). We have enjoyed a great escalator, we have been successful. When the discussion came up I thought Healy should have been recognised some time back, so when I had an opportunity I said I thought our names should be associated.”

In one regard, their lives were not the same, of course, Cecil’s cut short all too soon:

Cecil Healy, Aussie Swimmer No2, A Tale Of Sportsmanship & Loss 108 Years On

As John would doubtless have wanted it: may we be thankful for their great lives and may they both Rest in Peace.

Share this post

One thought on “Obituary – John Devitt, The Gentleman Aussie Sprinter Who Defied The Clock To Claim Olympic Gold At Rome 1960”

    Many thanks for your detailed account of John Devitt’s swimming career.I am saddened by the news of his passing a few days ago.

    From my days at Granville Baths in the early ‘50s where I first met him through the decades which followed I had the pleasure and honour of John’s friendship, firstly as a fellow swimming team member, including his captaincy of our ‘60 Olympic team in Rome, as the face of Speedo during my years in Swimming Canada’s administration followed by many years working together with him at Speedo.

    Ever a friend, a colleague a confidant and an outstanding role model. He will be missed. He was simply one of the best ever.

    R. I. P. JD

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *