Learn about the history of Olympic swimming, from its beginnings as a military training technique to its current status as an Olympic sport.
Swimming as a sport is thought to date back to 2500 BC, while people have undoubtedly been swimming since they first dipped their toes in the water.
Ancient Egyptians are claimed to have enjoyed swimming in the Nile, while Greeks and Romans utilised it to train prospective soldiers.
But how did it become a mainstay of the Olympic Games? Let’s take a look back at Olympic swimming’s history.
The sport’s beginnings
Swimming began as a sport in the mid-nineteenth century, with the formation of the world’s first swimming organisation in London in 1837.
Things inevitably grew competitive, and the first swimming tournament was conducted in Australia in 1846. The race became an annual event, and it was a forerunner to competitive swimming’s future popularity.
Since the first modern Olympics in 1896, swimming has been a part of the Olympic programme. Athletics, artistic gymnastics, and fencing are the only four disciplines that have been preserved and performed in every Olympic summer since.
Olympic swimming makes its debut.
Men exclusively competed in Olympic swimming events in the early years. Women’s contests were first introduced at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, despite the fact that women only competed in two events: the 100 m freestyle and the 4 x 100 m freestyle relay.
The early games’ experimental origins resulted in some fairly unique events. Swimming sports in the first modern Olympics in Athens included the 100 m freestyle for sailors, in which only members of the Greek naval were allowed to compete.
Olympic swimming events were held in open water until the London Games in 1908. As a result, swimmers were left at the mercy of the weather and waves.
Alfréd Hajós said after being exposed to temperatures of 13 °C in the Mediterranean (a modern Olympic pool is around 25-28 °C) during the 1200 m outdoor race, where he won gold, that “my desire to live completely overcame my desire to win.” This demonstrates the unpredictability of early swimming events.
Hajós demonstrated how diverse the games have been throughout history when he competed in the art competition at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where he and colleague Dezs Lauber won silver in the field of sports architecture.
Better technology, facilities, and training techniques were rewarded after WWII, resulting in significantly faster times than in the early wave fighting tournaments.
Female and male swimmers used to wear suits that added resistance and slowed them down. Swimwear got more hydrodynamic as the sport progressed. Costumes started to be manufactured from of fabrics like Lycra, which reduced traction and, as a result, decreased lap times.
During this time, competitive pools saw significant changes, leading to the switch from outdoor to indoor events. The addition of drainage to Olympic swimming pools, as well as designated lanes and pool depth limits in 1924, all led to a higher overall standard of competition in the years that followed.