John Devitt had an outstanding swimming career that spanned 13 years. In that time he won two gold, a silver, and a bronze medal in Olympic competition, three gold medals at the 1958 Cardiff British Empire and Commonwealth Games, broke 14 world records (four individual), and won 13 Australian championships (three individual).
At the 1955 Australian championships, Devitt had finished second to Henricks in the 110yds freestyle, and second to Murray Rose in the 220yds freestyle. In the 1956 titles, he was third to Henricks and Chapman over 110yds and fifth in the 220yds. Named in the Olympic training squad in Townsville, he did well but never finished first.
His dedication and amiable sense of authority earned him much respect among the swimmers, a fact not lost on the selectors. When, after the Olympic trials, he went along with some apprehension to the meeting at Olympic Park in Melbourne, at which the team was announced, he learned that he had not only been chosen, he was captain.
In the final of the 100m, neither Devitt or Henricks had a perfect start. Devitt was easily last off the blocks. But they were roughly abreast, in a tight field, at the end of the first lap, Henricks turned just a foot ahead, but Devitt surged to nudge the lead with 25m to go. They both battled heroically to the finish, and touched almost together. Henricks won with an Olympic record of 55.4 seconds. Devitt’s time was 55.8 seconds.
Devitt’s gold medal in Melbourne came in the 4x200m relay, an event which had been dominated by American and Japanese teams ever since 1912 when three Australians and a New Zealander won gold under the banner of Australasia. Australia had a wealth of talent from which to select the team, and in fact swam a total of seven swimmers in the heat and the final. Devitt was the only Australian swimmer to swim in both. In the final, Devitt was partnered with Henricks, Murray Rose, and a relatively unknown West Australian, Kevin O’Halloran. O’Halloran led after the first 200m, and Devitt, Rose, and Henricks progressively extended the lead. The quartet covered the distance in world record time of 8:23.6 seconds to win easily from the United States.
Four years later in Rome, Devitt won Australia’s first gold medal in what turned out to be the most controversial event of the Games. Devitt won his heat and semi-final of the 100m freestyle, qualifying for lane three of the final. That put the American Lance Larson on his right for the second lap. Devitt got away well, swam to a precise four segment plan, and was with the American, a metre behind the Brazilian Don Santos, when he came out of his turn. With 10 metres to go, Devitt surged to the front and looked set to win. Larson then unleashed a furious finish, and the pair battled together to the line. Two of the three first place judges nominated Devitt as the winner, but two of the second place judges picked him as second. All three timekeepers in Devitt’s lane gave him 55.2 seconds, those in Larson’s lane recorded him at 55.0, 55.1, and 55.1 -all faster than Devitt’s time. Newly introduced judging machines, which were started electronically but stopped manually, agreed with the watches. After an agonising eight minute delay, and a conference between the judges and the referee, it was announced that Devitt was the winner, and that the official time of both would be 55.2 seconds -an Olympic record.
The wrangling began almost immediately, with a protest from the American team, but the FINA jury announced a few minutes later that it had been rejected. Later, Max Ritter, the US representative on FINA’s executive committee, made another protest to the IOC president Avery Brundage, without success.
The controversy did not fade away, for six more years it was the subject of strong debate. Its most positive outcome was to provide impetus for the introduction of electronic timing. The most indelible impression was of Devitt’s immaculate, easy sportsmanship. He gave the impression that this, after all, was just a sport, and in doing so he gained more stature than any medal could have given him.
Devitt also won bronze in the 4x200m freestyle relay with John Konrads, Rose, and David Dickson. They finished behind the United States and Japan.
At the 1958 Cardiff British Empire and Commonwealth Games Devitt won three gold medals, in the 110yds (56.6), the 4x440yds medley relay, and the 4x880yds freestyle relay.
Devitt was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, USA, in 1979. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to swimming and sports administration in 1989.