Swimming: Olympic history, rules, latest updates and upcoming events for the Olympic sport

2024.02.07 21:02

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Olympic Debut Athens 1896 Most Gold Medals Michael Phelps (USA) More info

History of


What is Swimming?

Swimming at the Olympics is both an individual and team sport where competitors propel their bodies through water in either an outdoor or indoor swimming pool using one of the following strokes: Freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly.

It is not to be confused with Marathon (open water) swimming, or artistic swimming at the Games, which are considered separate disciplines.

By whom, where and when was Swimming invented?

Prehistoric man learned to swim in order to cross rivers and lakes - we know this because cave paintings from the Stone Age depicting swimmers have been found in Egypt. Swimming was also referred to in Greek mythology.

S wimming was not widely practised until the early 19th century, when the National Swimming Society of Great Britain began to hold competitions. Most early swimmers used the breaststroke, or a form of it.

Based on a stroke used by native South Americans, the first version of the crawl featured a scissor kick. In the late 1880s, an Englishman named Frederick Cavill travelled to the South Seas, where he saw the natives performing a crawl with a flutter kick. Cavill settled in Australia, where he taught the stroke that was to become the famous Australian crawl.

What are the rules of Swimming?

Athletes race using one of four strokes - freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly - or all of them in the individual medley (IM) events.

For freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and IM events, swimmers start by diving into the water from an elevated starting platform, while backstrokers (who also start the medley relays) begin in the water grasping a starting block.

In relay races, the second, third, and fourth swimmers on a team can only begin their leg of the race once the previous swimmer has touched the wall.

In all races, swimmers start simultaneously at the sound of a tone, and the first individual to touch the wall of the pool after the set distance is the winner. Any swimmer who dives into the pool before the starting signal is disqualified from the race.

How long is an Olympic swimming pool?

An Olympic swimming pool is 50m long, divided into eight lanes.

Types of swimming

Professional swimmers typically compete in a 50m “long course” swimming pool, or a 25m “short course” pool. There are only long course events at an Olympics Games.

The four strokes swimmers may use in all races are freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly.

Marathon swimming is a separate Olympic discipline, where athletes compete over long distances in open water environments (for example rivers, lakes and the sea) using only freestyle.

Swimming and the Olympics

Swimming is one of the oldest Olympic sports, having featured at every modern Olympic Games since Athens 1896. Women began competing at the Stockholm 1912 edition, and the mixed medley relays made their Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

The shortest individual event at the Olympics is the 50m freestyle, while backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly’s shortest race is 100m.

The United States is the most decorated nation with 257 gold medals overall after Tokyo 2020, comfortably ahead of second placed Australia with 69.

The most decorated male Olympic swimmer of all time is USA’s Michael Phelps who, with 23 gold medals (including 13 individual titles) and 28 medals overall, is also the most decorated Olympian of all time in any sport.

His compatriot Katie Ledecky is the most decorated individual female Olympic swimmer ever, with seven gold medals (including six individual titles) and 10 overall.

After athletics, it is the second largest sport at Olympic Games Paris 2024 in terms of medal-contested events with 35.

Best Swimmers to watch

Arguably the greatest female swimmer of all time, seven-time Olympic champion Katie Ledecky is still in her prime and could compete at two or three more Games. The American has also won individual Olympic titles in the 200m and 400m free.

Her greatest rival is Australia’s Ariarne Titmus , who won the individual 200m and 400m freestyle Olympic titles at Tokyo 2020.

Titmus’ compatriot Emma McKeon is Australia’s most decorated Olympian. Her four Olympics golds at Tokyo 2020 - including the individual 50m and 100m freestyle titles - and three bronze made her the most decorated Olympian across all sports at the event. She remains one of the world’s top swimmers across both freestyle sprints and the 100m butterfly.

Canada’s Summer McIntosh is considered one of the world’s most exciting swimming talents, having won the 200m butterfly and 400m medley world titles in 2022, at the age of 15.

Caeleb Dressel is considered the king of men’s sprint swimming, having won three individual titles (50m free, 100m free, and 100m butterfly) at Tokyo 2020, and another two in the relays.

His biggest freestyle threat comes from Romania’s David Popovici , who won the 100m and 200m freestyle world titles in 2022 at the age of 17.

Adam Peaty of Great Britain is the greatest male breaststroker of all time, having won Olympic gold at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 as well as becoming the first man ever to swim under 58 and 57 seconds over 100m.

Frenchman Leon Marchand was a revelation in 2022, winning two NCAA titles as a freshman before being crowned the 400 IM and 200 IM world champion in Budapest. But keep an eye on his rivalry with Hungary’s Kristof Milak in the 200 IM and potentially the 200m butterfly.

Swimming Competition Rules at Paris 2024

The Paris 2024 swimming competition will see 852 athletes vying for medals at the Paris La Défense Arena.

New to the Olympic program for Tokyo is a mixed medley relay, which will include teams of two male and two female swimmers per country.

With a total of 17 events per gender and one mixed event, each NOC will be eligible for a maximum quota of two athletes per individual event and one relay team per relay event.

Competition will take place over over nine days for the first time - as opposed to the regular eight-day format. - in order to alleviate the schedules of several swimmers competing in the individual and relay events during the same session.

Preliminary rounds will take place in the morning, followed by semi-finals and finals in the evening session.

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