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Lance Larson, Who Lost a Disputed Olympic Swim Race, Dies at 83

Lance Larson, a champion Southern California swimmer whose apparent victory in the 100-meter freestyle race at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome was snatched away within minutes by the chief judge, died on Jan. 19 in Orange, Calif. He was 83.

His son Lance Jr. said the death, in a hospice facility, was caused by complications of pneumonia.

The race had been very close, led at first by Manuel Dos Santos of Brazil until John Devitt, an Australian, overtook him.

“At the 75-meter mark, Larson sees a shadow to his left, slightly ahead, and says to himself, ‘When are you going to start moving?’” David Maraniss wrote in his book “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World” (2008). “And he starts moving.”

The two swimmers were no farther apart “than the width of a flattened sardine,” the New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley wrote.

Larson touched the wall underwater, and Devitt touched above the water.

Larson “flipped joyously backward, kicking off in a long glide to celebrate what he thought was victory,” Sports Illustrated wrote.

But after he left the pool, an American official told him that there was a problem: No winner had been declared.

In an era before starting beeps, automatic electronic touch pads at the finish walls and instant replays, international swimming had a complex system of measuring a victory.

Three timekeepers for each of the eight swimmers stood at the finish line. The three in Larson’s lane clocked him at 55.0, 55.1 and 55.1 seconds; the three in Devitt’s lane all timed him at 55.2. That gave Larson an edge of one-tenth of a second.

The results from a new electronic timing machine, which served as a backup, also gave Larson the edge, 55.10 seconds to Devitt’s 55.16.

But those results were incidental to determine the winner in those days. International rules put the final decision in the hands of judges. Two of the three first-place judges picked Devitt as the winner; the other chose Larson. Two of the three second-place judges picked Devitt (who died last August), and one selected Larson.

Their tie led the chief judge, Hans Runströmer of West Germany, to intercede. He said that he had a clear view of the finish line. But a Sports Illustrated photograph showed him about 25 yards away, where he would have seen the finish from an angle.

He declared Devitt the winner. He ordered that Larson’s time be changed from 55.1 to 55.2, the same as Devitt’s, but said that Devitt touched the wall first.

“This could never happen in the United States because of our judging system,” Larson told The Associated Press at the time. “We use watches and electrical devices as well as the human judging element, and all factors are taken into consideration. I was sick when I learned the race had been given to Devitt.”

Lance Melvin Larson was born on July 3, 1940, in Monterey Park, in Southern California, and grew up in nearby El Monte. His parents, Walter and Virginia (Beaton) Larson, ran a dairy farm and later a service station.

Lance was known for his swimming prowess at least as early as his days at El Monte High School. During an Amateur Athletic Union meet in 1958, he became the first high schooler to swim the 100-meter freestyle in less than 50 seconds.

At the University of Southern California, he was an All-American and the first to break the one-minute mark in the 100-meter butterfly. In all, he set 18 American records.

Larson was easy to spot, the author David Maraniss wrote, because he was “the first of the great male swimmers to peroxide his hair.” Larson also shaved his body — not for aerodynamics but for what he called the “muscle sensation” he felt while swimming.

Soon after arriving in Rome, Larson contracted dysentery from eating unwashed fruit and lost eight pounds, though he recovered enough to swim well in the 100-meter freestyle event.

R. Max Ritter, the United States representative on FINA, the international swimming federation, protested the result of the race. He argued that, among other things, the chief judge lacked the authority to decide who the winner was. But the protest was rejected.

After that, Ritter and other American swimming officials examined CBS’s videotape of the race. “The longer they squinted” at the CBS monitor, “the more they were convinced that Larson got jobbed,” the syndicated columnist Red Smith wrote.

Ritter tried for a decade to have FINA (now World Aquatics) and the International Olympic Committee award the gold medal to Larson, without success.

Four days after the disappointment of winning the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle, Larson won gold in the 4×100-meter medley relay, breaking the world record. He swam the butterfly in the third leg, handing a big lead to Jeff Farrell, who swam the freestyle in the anchor leg.

Larson studied business and commerce at U.S.C.until 1961, when he was accepted for early admission at the University of the Pacific school of dentistry, from which he graduated in 1964. After serving in the Navy Dental Corps from 1965 to 1968, he began his career in general dentistry.

He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1980.

In addition to his son Lance Jr., Larson is survived by his wife, Sherrie (Powell) Larson; three other sons, Greg, Gary and Randy; two daughters, Jairica Fosburg and Danica Juliano; three stepdaughters, Erica Leon, Jessica Sherwood and Monica Jara; and 10 grandchildren. His marriage to Betty Lee Puttler ended in divorce.

Once the swimming at the 1960 Olympics was completed, Larson and some of his teammates rented mopeds and toured Rome. That’s what he was doing during the closing ceremony.

“He told me he was very well received by the Italians, who saw him as the blond American who had actually won that race,” Lance Larson Jr. said in a phone interview. “He’d stop in bars and get free drinks.”

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