The Dead Heat In Swimming

Courtesy: Corey He

I’ve always thought that referring to ties in a race as a “dead heat” was a bit counterintuitive — races that end in ties or close finishes are the most exciting, and most certainly not “dead.” Colloquially, events that are considered “dead” are often dull, boring, or even outdated.

But maybe that’s just me reading too much into the words.

Either way, today we’ll take a look at dead heats that took place on swimming’s largest stage. If ties aren’t exciting enough for you, check out this article featuring Olympic races that were decided by one one-hundredth of a second.

Women’s 100 Freestyle, Rio 2016

The most recent race on this list, I actually remember sitting in front of the TV as a young age-group swimmer, watching this race unfold.

This was one of the fastest women’s 100 freestyle Olympic finals ever. You had the defending Olympic champion, Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands. You had the Campbell sisters — Bronte Campbell and world record holder Cate Campbell of Australia. You had Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, easily one of the most decorated swimmers of all time.

The Campbell sisters went out fast, flipping in 1st and 2nd at the 50 — with Cate under world-record pace. With 15 meters to go, though, they began to fade, and all of a sudden, it became anyone’s race.

The final touch was too close to call, but once the dust settled, Penny Oleksiak of Canada and Simone Manuel of the U.S. had tied for first place in a new Olympic record time of 52.70 —Oleksiak’s performance was also a World Junior Record. Sjostrom rounded out the podium in 52.99, with the Campbell sisters finishing in 4th and 6th.

Men’s 50 Freestyle, Sydney 2000

Five one-hundredths of a second decided the medalists of this race, making this the closest race (among the podium finishers) on this list.

Swimming in the middle of the pool were Americans Gary Hall Jr., and Anthony Ervin — teammates at the Phoenix Swim Club. Hall had notably been battling Type 1 diabetes for the past year; after a brief break from swimming, Hall returned to competition, setting an American record in the 50 free at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Right next to the Americans was Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, who had already captured Olympic gold in the 100 and 200 freestyles. In winning the 200 freestyle, van den Hoogenband not only set a new world record, but also defeated the home favorite, Australia’s Ian Thorpe.

It was clear from the get-go that this was going to come down to the wire. With just five meters left, the gold medal truly could have gone to five or six different swimmers. At the wall, though, it was Ervin and Hall tying for the win in 21.98, followed by van den Hoogenband in 22.03. Ervin, in particular, had become the first swimmer of African American descent to step to the top of the Olympic podium.

After Sydney, Hall would go on to defend his 50 free Olympic title at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Ervin, meanwhile, would step away from the sport in 2003 before making a competitive comeback. He would finish off his career with an Olympic gold medal in the same event at Rio 2016.

Interestingly enough, Hall’s margin of victory at Athens 2004 was the same as Ervin’s margin of victory at Rio 2016: one one-hundredth of a second. How crazy is that?

Women’s 100 Freestyle, Los Angeles 1984

With the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics, this race was truly wide open. In fact, 14 of the fastest times in history in the 100 free at the time were swum by East German women — and due to the boycott, none of those athletes were a part of this race.

Through the heats, three favorites emerged: Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead of the United States, along with Annemarie Verstappen of the Netherlands. Steinseifer was just 16 years old at the time, having finished up her sophomore year of high school. Hogshead was coming off of a hiatus from swimming for personal reasons, but had previously medaled at the 1978 Worlds in Berlin. Verstappen was the reigning world champion in the 200 freestyle, setting the stage for what would be a close battle.

Though the race was marred by an early false start, it did not disappoint. Verstappen jumped out to the early lead, flipping at the halfway point just a tenth behind world record pace. Hogshead slowly reeled in Verstappen on the second 50, but Verstappen fought back. Right next to Hogshead was Steinseifer, who was making her own surge and gaining on Hogshead as well.

For a split second, with just five meters left to go, all three swimmers were dead even. Verstappen, however, faded in the final meters while the two Americans dueled it out to the wall.

As the results went up on the scoreboard, commentators initially thought that Steinseifer had won in a time of 55.92, as the board had listed “1” next to her name. Hogshead had a “2” listed next to her name on the board, but her time was also listed as 55.92 — implying that a tie had taken place.

Most of the swimmers remained in the water, anxiously awaiting a decision. After a nervous wait, the official results were announced, indicating that Steinseifer and Hogshead had tied for Olympic gold, much to the shock and excitement of the two Americans. Verstappen earned the bronze in 56.08.

Hogshead and Steinseifer would team up at the same Olympics to earn two more gold medals as members of the U.S 4×100 freestyle and medley relays. In fact, Hogshead would leave Los Angeles as the most decorated swimmer of the Games (three golds, one silver). Verstappen would earn another bronze medal in the 200 freestyle and a silver medal as part of the Dutch team in the 4×100 free relay, finishing just behind the Americans in the relay event.

Men’s 400 IM, Munich 1972

We’re getting into the more controversial races now — and although this race was not technically a dead heat, I have to include it here on this list simply because of its bizarre nature.

As the historic showdown between Phelps and Cavic showed, it’s sometimes more about how hard you hit the touchpad and less about when exactly you hit the touchpad. In fact, swimming pools are not designed for the precision of a thousandth of a second — it is simply beyond the margin of error within the design of the touchpad.

This race featured world-record holder Gary Hall Sr., along with Tim McKee of the U.S. and Gunnar Larsson of Sweden. Hall got off to a blazing start, turning at the 200 several body lengths ahead of the field. As Hall later recounted, however, he had gone out too hard — McKee quickly overtook Hall on the breaststroke leg and was considerably ahead of the field going into the freestyle.

Larsson, known as a great closer and one of the world’s best 400 freestylers at the time, began to make up ground rapidly. In the last 50 meters, McKee would lift his head out of the water to locate Larsson, who was swimming a couple of lanes over. This, in all likelihood, would trigger what happened next.

The scoreboard initially indicated a tie: Larsson and McKee both had a “1” listed next to their names, in a joint time of 4:31.98. McKee’s brief elation, however, transformed into bitter disappointment: upon further review, it was revealed that Larsson’s time was recorded at 4:31.981, with McKee’s time at 4:31.983.

Two-thousandths of a second.

The outcome of this race brought about great controversy, but it did catalyze a rule change: it was agreed that no swimming race would have to be decided by a margin less than one one-hundredth of a second.

Unfortunately for McKee, this decision was never reversed, relegating him to the silver medal in a race that should have been a dead heat. He would go on to repeat as the silver medalist at the 1976 Montreal Games in another close 400 IM Olympic final.

Men’s 100 Freestyle, Rome 1960

I’ll close with perhaps the most controversial race result on this list: a close finish between Lance Larson of the U.S. and John Devitt of Australia.

At the time, race results were decided by three judges without replays, along with three official timers per swimmer. Devitt’s three timers all recorded him in 55.2 seconds. Larson’s three timers had him at 55.0, 55.1, and 55.1 seconds.

The three judges, though, disagreed with the timers. They felt that Larson and Devitt had tied for first place. The situation was then deferred to chief judge Henry Runströmer of Sweden, who controversially cast a deciding vote in favor of Devitt and thus overruled the official timers — despite the fact that the regulations did not allow the chief judge to break ties.

In the end, both Devitt and Larson were listed with a finishing time of 55.2 seconds, but Devitt was declared the sole winner and Olympic champion. The U.S. team appealed the decision, using videotape evidence that seemed to definitively show Larson touching the wall first; FINA, however, rejected the appeal.

The controversy that ensued is often credited for paving the way towards the electronic touchpads that we see in swimming today. Though Larson would never take part in another Olympiad, he did come away from Rome with an Olympic gold medal, this time as part of the 4×100 medley relay.

Final Thoughts

With all these ties in mind, the more I think about all this, the more I appreciate the dead heat. Especially given their rarity, dead heats are truly a special part of the sport — when else will two swimmers be able to share a gold medal on swimming’s largest stage (if you ignore relays)?

In all honesty, I wouldn’t even want to know who may have touched first by however many thousandths of a second — even if someone made touchpads that could detect such fine margins. Instead, as a fan of the sport, I’d much rather see two swimmers pushing each other right to the end of a race — and seeing the surprise and elation on their faces, knowing that they had both realized a dream they had been chasing since they were just a few years old.


Corey is a current junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying biology and healthcare management on a pre-medicine track. Originally from New Jersey, he first jumped into the water when he was 4 years old and swam competitively all the way through high school. Prior to college, he swam for Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA. He hopes to pursue a career in sports medicine.

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26 days ago

Gotta say that Fink/Kamminga/martinenghi 3 way tie for bronze in Fukuoka was pretty epic

Reply to  Andrew
22 days ago

That was 3 way tie for silver, not bronze..and in Rio also the same happen in 100fly

Tea rex
26 days ago

2016 100 fly was Schooling’s moment, and great for him with a well-deserved gold.

BUT, if he hadn’t been in the final, a Phelps/LeClos/Cseh triple gold would have been epic!
Also, a little crazy to think that as recently as 2016, a 51.1 was good for silver

26 days ago

The same argument about the design tolerances of swimming pools and starting blocks should lead 800m and 1500m to be decided by 1/10 of sec at most.

Octavio Gupta
26 days ago

Ties do not result in an extra medal recipient. If two tie for gold, the next best finisher is awarded bronze because they were still the 3rd best competitor.

Last edited 26 days ago by Octavio Gupta
Reply to  Octavio Gupta
26 days ago

They do if there are ties for bronze.

26 days ago

Back on the day cause starts didn’t marr a race. They were a frequent party of race strategy. Almost every race had at least one false start

Kudzai Makova
26 days ago

Dead heats have been common for minor medals
Men’s 100fly Rio 2016: Silver Medal Tie- Phelps/Le Clos/Cseh

Women 200m back Athens 2004: Bronze Medal – Nakamura/Buschschulte

Paris 2024 : women’s 200IM Summer & Kaylee will be joint Olympic Champions!

I miss the ISL (go dawgs)
Reply to  Kudzai Makova
26 days ago

Not if Kate Douglass has anything to say about it.