back to articles

Too Close To Call

Aug. 05, 2004

At the Summer Games, winning and losing are never more than a split second apart. So as athletes from 202 countries descend on Athens, Time looks back at some of the closest finishes in Olympic history—moments that expand our very sense of what an instant can contain.

Los Angeles/1932

Women's 200-m Breaststroke
How did a 16-year-old Australian schoolgirl end up winning one of the closest swimming races in Olympic history? By listening to advice from Flash Gordon. American matinee idol Buster Crabbe, star of Tarzan and the Flash Gordon movies and a two-time Olympic freestyle medalist, spotted Clare Dennis' talent when she swam the fastest heat in the women's 200-m breaststroke at the L.A. Games. He decided to give her a tip that she hadn't learned in Sydney. Take three full strokes underwater at the start of the race, he advised, to boost speed. (This was before the single underwater stroke limit was introduced in 1956.) Crabbe's advice worked, and Dennis went on to beat Hideko Maehata of Japan by just 0.1 sec. Dennis came to Los Angeles a rank outsider, but became the only non-American female swimmer to win gold at the Games.


Women's 80-m Hurdles
Hitler wasn't pleased. The black track-and-field star Jesse Owens broke the world record for the 100 m in a heat on the first day; he won the final on the second day, again in world-record time; and he won the broad jump with yet another record on the third day. So much for the superiority of the Aryan race. TIME reported that Der Angriff, the German paper run by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, complained that "the Yankees, heretofore invincible, have been the great disappointment of the games ... Without these members of the black race — these auxiliary helpers — a German would have won the broad jump." Goebbels had to do some more spinning when German favorite Anni Steuer lost in the women's 80-m hurdles to Trebisonda Valla of Italy. Valla ran the semifinal in 11.6 sec., which was recognized as an Olympic record, but not a world record. In the final, Steuer was on the inside of the track while Valla, the Canadian Elizabeth Taylor and Italian Claudia Testoni held the outside. Valla got off to the best start, with Steuer last over the first hurdle, and just managed to retain the lead. She finished in 11.7 sec., the same time as Steuer, Taylor and Testoni. Although their times were identical, the judges spent 30 minutes examining images from the the photo finish, which also listed the runners' times in thousandths of a second. Valla came in first, just 0.061 sec. ahead of Steuer. Taylor was third and Testoni fourth, a full 0.07 sec. behind Valla.


Men's Basketball
The U.S. team came to the final having won every game in Olympic play for the past 36 years. But the Soviet Union's team surprised the Americans with an aggressive offense. With just six seconds left, the U.S.S.R. was clinging to a one-point lead when American Doug Collins was deliberately fouled. Collins sank both his free throws, giving the U.S. its first lead, 50-49, with just three seconds left. The Soviets failed to score, time ran out, and the Americans erupted in celebration. But Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashkin claimed he had called a time-out that was ignored, and Britain's R. William Jones, the secretary-general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation, ordered the clock set back by three seconds. When play resumed, Soviet star Sasha Belov pushed past two U.S. defenders to sink the winning basket.


Men's 100-m
Lindy Remigino never imagined he would win a gold medal; in fact, he barely made it to the Helsinki Games at all. A scrawny 21-year-old from Hartford, Connecticut, Remigino finished fifth that year in the American collegiate championships, and as a result barely managed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic tryouts. On the day of the 100-m race, Remigino's prospects didn't look much better. He faced tough competition from favorites Mac Bailey of Trinidad and the Jamaican Herb McKenley. And the weather was awful. Yet despite pouring rain, 85,000 people crammed into Helsinki's Olympic Stadium for the heat. At first, Remigino lagged behind, but midway through the race he surged ahead, with McKenley, Bailey and another American, Dean Smith, trailing behind. Against all the odds, Remigino held the lead — until he approached the finish line, when he leaned for the tape nearly 20 m too soon. This allowed the others, with McKenley leading the pack, to catch up. As the runners crossed the wire, Remigino was sure he saw McKenley whiz past. "I thought Herb won," he later recalled. "I was mad at myself. I was heartsick. I figured I'd blown it." But the race was so tight that the judges were unable to call it, even after scrutinizing the photo finish images. Finally they declared that Remigino's right shoulder crossed the finish line barely 2.5 cm ahead of McKenley's chest. Remigino turned to McKenley in disbelief and said, "Gosh, Herb, it looks as though I won the darn thing." It was the the closest men's 100-m finish in Olympic history.


Men's 100-m Freestyle
It was one of the most controversial upsets in swimming history, and it helped launch a new era of Olympic timekeeping. The men's freestyle contest in Rome was thrown wide open when two favorites, American Jeff Farrell and the defending gold medalist, Australia's Jon Henricks, were sidelined by illness. In their absence, Australian John Devitt and American Lance Larson dominated the race and finished in a near dead heat. Convinced he had lost, Devitt congratulated Larson as he left the pool. But the judges were split down the middle: three gave the race to Larson; three gave it to Devitt. To resolve the impasse, they consulted the electronic timers, which gave the edge to Larson by 0.1 sec. The manually operated machine that recorded when each swimmer touched the side of the pool also showed Larson as the winner. But chief judge Hans Runströmer saw it differently. He awarded Devitt the gold medal — even though chief judges are not empowered to resolve disputed finishes. It was the last time that a judge's eyeball decision was allowed to determine the outcome of a race. In part to avoid a repetition of the Rome controversy, electronic timers became the official timekeeping devices at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.


Men's 800-m
Cold-war rivalries were rife in Munich, a Games marred by a terrorist attack in which eight Palestinians broke into the Olympic Village and killed 11 members of the Israeli team. On the athletics track, Dave Wottle was an unlikely American hero. The man to beat was Yevhen Arzhanov of the Soviet Union, who had not lost an 800-m final in four years. Nobody thought Wottle, a slight 22-year-old from Canton, Ohio, with little international experience, had a chance — not even U.S. coach Bill Bowerman. "In the eyes of the dour University of Oregon coach, Wottle would be unable to overcome two afflictions, both suffered in July: tendinitis of the knees and marriage," TIME reported. As the race got under way, Wottle was running true to form, in sixth place, well behind leaders Michael Boit and Robert Ouko, both from Kenya. But with the homestretch in sight, the Kenyans flagged and Arzhanov accelerated into first place, with Wottle moving up into second. With just 18 m before the finish, Wottle pushed ahead of Arzhanov, who stumbled and fell 2 m short of the tape, giving Wottle the victory. Wottle was so stunned by his win that he forgot to remove his battered old golf cap during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at the medal ceremony (left). Taken aback by a reporter asking if he had kept his cap on as a protest against the Vietnam War, Wottle made a formal apology to the American people. In 1977, the cap was placed in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in New York City. Three years later, Wottle himself was admitted to the Hall of Fame. "They wanted the hat," he later recalled, "before they wanted me."


Men's 1,000-m Kayak Singles
Before heading off to Seoul, Gregory Barton was a mechanical engineer who grew up on a pig farm in Homer, Michigan. Not exactly a place you'd expect to find a potential gold-medal kayaker. "Barton, 28, paddles out of the passion he caught from his parents, who were recreational canoeists," Time wrote. In 1988, he was the best hope for U.S. gold in the kayaking event. Barton was born with slightly deformed feet, but his physical disability only increased his determination to excel in his chosen event. "Being on the water, being in the fresh air, just the feeling of the boat accelerating under your own power — it became a challenge to see how much I could improve," Barton told TIME. He improved enough to cross the finish line in Seoul alongside Australia's Grant Davies. The scoreboard showed an Aussie victory, so Barton started preparing for his next event, the final of the 1,000-m pairs. But the jury of the International Canoe Federation was still finalizing its verdict. Scrutinizing the images of the photo finish, they announced a few minutes later that Barton had beaten Davies by 0.005 sec. — less than 1 cm. The pig farmer had brought home the U.S.'s first kayaking gold.


Women's 100-m
The prelude to the women's 100-m race was almost as hotly contested as the race itself. Katrin Krabbe, the German favorite, had been suspended from competition for four years for faking a drugs test. Under political pressure from a newly reunified Germany, though, Krabbe was let off on a technicality, but ended up bowing out anyway, claiming the ordeal had left her unable to perform. The race then became a contest among Jamaicans Juliet Cuthbert and Merlene Ottey, Americans Gail Devers (left) and Gwen Torrence, and Russia's Irina Privalova. Devers' story was especially poignant because she had just completed two years of radiation therapy for Graves' disease, a disorder of the immune system. Devers and Privalova led the field for most of the race, but in the final stretch Cuthbert, Ottey and Torrence closed in. The finish was so close that the judges watched and rewatched the slow-motion replays, but were still unable to declare a winner. The decision finally went in Devers' favor; Ottey, who placed fifth, was less than 0.1 sec. behind her. It was a sweet victory for Devers, who just two years previously thought illness would prevent her from ever running again.