The Story of Electronic Timing -- Part 1

The Story of Electronic Timing -- Part 1

By Tom Slear//Contributor  | Tuesday, May 1, 2018

In swimming, we’ve got it good. With the advent of electronic timing, very rarely do the outcomes of close races come down to the subjective opinions of an on-deck official. But that wasn’t always the case. This is part 1 of a two-part story on how swimming’s automatic timing system came to be.


Nearly six decades later, it remains the worst officiating blunder in swimming’s history. The affected event was the men’s 100 free at 1960 Olympics in Rome. The prime competitors were Australian John Devitt, the world record holder and the silver medalist in 1956, and Lance Larson, the fast-improving Southern Cal sophomore who had decisively won the 100 free at the American trials.

The race (You Tube: appeared to go to Larson, but the officials gave the gold medal to Devitt. Despite this travesty, much good came from it, which will be covered in Part 2.

Here’s what happened:

FINA rules during that nascent electronic era specified 24 judges for determining the order of finish. In Rome, they sat in four-row mini-bleachers at the finish end of the pool, half on one side, half on the other side. Three judges were assigned for each of the eight places. They sat randomly in the bleachers so as to avoid group-think.

An Apparent Tie

Two of the first-place judges recorded that the winner was in lane three, which was where Devitt swam. The third first-place judge said the winner was in lane four, which was Larson’s lane. The second-place judges saw the opposite. Two gave second place to lane three and one to lane four. Collectively, the six judges deemed the race a tie.

Once the judges’ cards were compiled and read, the chief judge was obliged by rule to step aside and turn the matter over to the referee. The referee was supposed to break the tie based on the output of a semiautonomous mechanism called the Swimming Timing System and Recording Machine. Each timer – there were three per lane – activated the machine upon the finish of the swimmer in his lane. This, in turn, marked a tape and provided an order of finish.

The machine was synchronized with watches, so along with determining finishes, the machine recorded times. Unlike during the Olympics in 1956, when the rules were ambiguous about using a similar machine in official capacity, FINA directed four days before the start of competition in Rome that “the machine should be consulted by the judges for proper results.”

A Clear Victory, or Was It?

All three timers in Larson’s lane triggered a finish in the recording machine ahead of the timers in Devitt’s lane. What’s more, the machine recorded times of 55.0, 55.1, 55.1 for Larson and 55.2, 55.2, 55.2 for Devitt. Apparently, it was a clear victory for Larson.

Yet instead of passing responsibility to the referee, who ostensibly would have consulted the recording machine, the chief judge hastily declared Devitt the winner by virtue of the two-to-one margin from the first-place judges. The U.S. delegate to FINA, Max Ritter, was standing by the machine and saw how it recorded the finish. A technician read the times and immediately congratulated Ritter on the American victory. When the official results were announced, Ritter was dumbfounded and rushed to inspect the judges’ cards. He knew the recording machine was a backup. Its output was irrelevant if the judges had given the race to Devitt.

Once at the judges’ table, Ritter was told the cards were unavailable. He didn’t see them until after the awards ceremony. The chief judge, Hans Runstromer of Germany, initially showed Ritter only the cards from the first-place judges, as if they alone told the entire story. Ritter insisted on seeing the cards from the second-place judges. Ritter explained emphatically to Runstromer that he should have ruled the race a tie and turned the matter over to referee, Bertyl Sallfors of Sweden. Runstromer stepped away and consulted with Sallfors. Sallfors then told Ritter that the chief judge had voted for Devitt, thereby deciding the issue.


Ritter was livid. He was one of the eight founders of FINA. He had been a chief judge at the Olympics in 1948 and 1952. Did Runstromer and Sallfors take him for an idiot? Even if FINA rules granted the chief judge a vote, which Ritter knew was not the case, Runstromer was not in the pool-side bleachers with the other judges when the race finished, but five meters toward the other end of the pool and in no position to determine who won.

Nevertheless, Runstromer and Sallfors held firm. Ritter then traipsed to the CBS trailer to view television images. It was a scene that would repeat itself after the men’s Olympic 100 fly final 48 years later. Once viewing a film of the race, Ritter was more convinced of Larson’s victory. But the next day FINA turned down the U.S. appeal, claiming that the chief judge did, after all, have a vote. In a subsequent report, Ritter expressed his exasperation, labeling the whole affair “unbelievable.”

Yet there was a silver lining to all of this. Electronic timing and judging had encountered significant resistance before the 1960 Olympics. What happened in Rome changed that for good.



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