By Bruce Wigo.
Richard Bruce Hunter, 1960 Olympian and All-American swimmer from Harvard died on July 6, on his 79th birthday. He is remembered not only being one of the best American sprinters of his era, but for one of the great demonstrations of sportsmanship in competitive swimming history.
Six days before the 100m freestyle event at the 1960 US Olympic Swimming Tryouts, Jeff Farrell, the USA’s best 100m and 200m freestyler, and favorite to quality for the team in both events, was stricken with appendicitis. As documented in Jeff’s wonderful autobiography, “My Olympic Story,” the Olympic committee offered him on a spot on the team without going through the trials – an offer Farrell refused. Six days after doctors performed a revolutionary new surgical procedure suggested to doctors by his coach, Bob Kiphuth, Jeff stood on the blocks at the Trials. But not until he signed a “hold harmless” release to protect the AAU. It was an era when there was no 4 x 100m freestyle relay on the Olympic program, so Farrell had to finish in the top two to make the Olympic Team. Unfortunately, he finished third, by one-tenth of a second, behind Harvard sprinter Bruce Hunter.
“The next day Bruce Hunter offered to give me his place on the team,” Farrell wrote in his book. “I knew Bruce well enough to know that he was sincere, but of course I could not accept his incredibly generous offer. He told the Olympic coach, Gus Stager, the same thing, and Gus would not permit him to give up his place for me.”
Hunter knew well how Farrell felt, since he suffered his own share of disappointments during his career. As a sophomore at Harvard, he broke his arm between trials and finals of the Eastern Championships and as a Junior had been disqualified in the NCAA prelims, after tying the national record, for not touching the wall during a turn with his hand — as was the rules in those days.
At the Trials in Detroit, Farrell still had one last chance to qualify for the Olympic Team as a member of the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. He did that by finishing fourth and although America’s top freestyler would be going to Rome, he would not swim in an individual event.
But Hunter’s role in Jeff Farrell’s Olympic story didn’t end in Detroit. In Rome, the 100m freestyle created two controversies: The first, the race itself is a race that changed Olympic swimming history by a controversial judges decision. On ISHOF’s youtube channel there is a great video that tell the story – which might never have happened had Jeff Farrell been in the race.
The other controversy became a cold-war struggle. The Rome Olympics was the first time for the 4x100m medley relay. The USA’s top qualifier in the 100m freestyle and silver medalist was Lance Larson. Larson was also the team’s fastest in the 100m butterflier. After Bruce Hunter had finished fourth in the 100m final, US Olympic Coach Gus Stager announced that Jeff Farrell would swim the anchor leg of the relay over Bruce Hunter. Sensing this would improve the USA’s chances to win the gold, the Soviets immediately objected to FINA, because Farrell had not swum an individual event. The objection fell on deaf ears, with FINA ruling that any member from a Olympic team was eligible to swim on a relay. The relay won and Jeff Farrell left Rome with two Olympic Gold Medals that should have been three.
While another man might have been angry, Bruce Hunter accepted Stager’s decision without complaint even though under the rules of the day, he knew that he would not return home with a medal by swimming in the preliminaries.
Although he never won an Olympic medal, Bruce Hunter will forever be remembered in the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his great show of sportsmanship at the Olympic Trials and at the Olympic Games in Rome.