Swimming has been recorded since prehistoric times; the earliest recording of swimming dates back to Stone Age paintings from around 7,000 years ago. Written references date from 2000 BC. Some of the earliest references to swimming include the Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, Beowulf, and other sagas.
In 1578, Nikolaus Wynmann, a German professor of languages, wrote the first swimming book, The Swimmer or A Dialogue on the Art of Swimming (Der Schwimmer oder ein Zwiegespräch über die Schwimmkunst).
Competitive swimming in Europe started around 1800, mostly using breaststroke. In 1873, John Arthur Trudgen introduced the trudgen to Western swimming competitions, after copying the front crawl used by Native Americans. Due to a British dislike of splashing, Trudgen employed a scissor kick instead of the front crawls flutter kick. Swimming was part of the first modern Olympic games in 1896 in Athens.
In 1902 Richmond Cavill introduced the front crawl to the Western world. In 1908, the world swimming association, Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), was formed. Butterfly was developed in the 1930s and was at first a variant of breaststroke, until it was accepted as a separate style in 1952.
Competitive swimming became popular in the nineteenth century. The goal of competitive swimming is to constantly improve upon one’s time, or to beat the competitors in any given event. However, some professional swimmers who do not hold a national or world ranking are considered the best in regard to their technical skills.
Typically, an athlete goes through a cycle of training in which the body is overloaded with work in the beginning and middle segments of the cycle, and then the workload is decreased in the final stage as the swimmer approaches the competition in which he or she is to compete in.
This final stage is often referred to as “shave and taper”; the swimmer tapering down his or her workload to be able to perform at their optimal level. At the very end of this stage, before competition, the swimmer shaves off all exposed hair for the sake of reducing drag and having a sleeker and more hydrodynamic feel in the water.
Swimming is an event at the Summer Olympic Games, where male and female athletes compete in 16 of the recognised events each. Olympic events are held in a 50-meter pool, called a long course pool.
There are forty officially recognised individual swimming events in the pool; however the International Olympic Committee only recognises 32 of them. The international governing body for competitive swimming is the Fédération Internationale de Natation (“International Swimming Federation”), better known as FINA.
In open water swimming, where the events are swum in a body of open water (lake or sea), there are also 5 km, 10 km and 25 km events for men and women. However, only the 10 km event is included in the Olympic schedule, again for both men and women. Open-water competitions are typically separate to other swimming competitions with the exception of the World Championships and the Olympics.
In competitive swimming, four major styles have been established. These have been relatively stable over the last 30–40 years with minor improvements. The four main strokes in swimming are:
In the past two decades, the most drastic change in swimming has been the addition of the underwater dolphin kick. This is used to maximise the speed at the start and after the turns. The first successful use of it was by David Berkoff at the 1988 Olympics, where he swam most of the 100 m backstroke race underwater and broke the world record on the distance during the preliminaries.
Another swimmer to use the technique was Denis Pankratov at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he completed almost half of the 100 m butterfly underwater to win the gold medal. In the past few years, American competitive swimmers have shown the most use of the underwater dolphin kick to gain advantage, most notably Olympic and World medal winners Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
While the dolphin kick is mostly seen in middle-distance freestyle events and in all distances of backstroke and butterfly, it is not usually used to the same effect in freestyle sprinting. That changed with the addition of the so-called sharkskin suits around the European Short Course Championships in Rijeka, Croatia in December 2008.
There, Amaury Leveaux set new world records of 44.94 seconds in the 100 m freestyle, 20.48 seconds in the 50 m freestyle and 22.18 in the 50 m butterfly. Unlike the rest of the competitors in these events, he spent at least half of each race underwater using the dolphin kick.
While underwater dolphin kicking is allowed in freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, its use is not permitted in the same way in the breaststroke. In 2005, a new rule was formed stating that an optional downward dolphin kick may be used off the start and each turn, and it must occur during the breaststroke pull-out. Any other dolphin kick will result in disqualification.
New rules were established to curtail excessive use of underwater dolphin kicks in freestyle, backstroke and butterfly. Currently, performing the dolphin kick past 15 meters results in a disqualification.
The Development of Swimming
Swimming times have dropped over the years due to better training techniques and to new developments. The first four Olympics competitions were not held in pools, but in open water (1896 – The Mediterranean, 1900 – The Seine River, 1904 – an artificial lake, 1906 – The Mediterranean). The 1904 Olympics’ freestyle race was the only one ever measured at 100 yards, instead of the usual 100 meters.
A 100-meter pool was built for the 1908 Olympics and sat in the centre of the main stadium’s track and field oval. The 1912 Olympics, held in the Stockholm harbour, marked the beginning of electronic timing.
Male swimmers wore full-body suits until the 1940s, which caused more drag in the water than their modern swimwear counterparts did. Competition suits now include engineered fabric and designs to reduce swimmers’ drag in the water and prevent athlete fatigue. In addition, over the years, pool designs have lessened the drag. Some design considerations allow for the reduction of swimming resistance, making the pool faster. Namely, proper pool depth, elimination of currents, increased lane width, energy absorbing racing lane lines and gutters, and the use of other innovative hydraulic, acoustic, and illumination designs.
The 1924 Summer Olympics were the first to use the standard 50-meter pool with marked lanes. In the freestyle, swimmers originally dove from the pool walls, but diving blocks were incorporated at the 1936 Summer Olympics. The flip turn was developed by the 1950s and goggles were first used in the 1976 Olympics.
There were also changes in the late 20th century in terms of technique. Breaststrokers are now allowed to dip their heads completely under water, which allows for a longer stroke and faster time. However, the breaststrokers must bring their heads up at the completion of each cycle. In addition, a split stroke in the breaststroke start and turns has been added to help speed up the stroke. There have been some other changes added recently as well. Now off the start and turns, breaststrokers are allowed one butterfly kick to help increase their speed.
Backstrokers are now allowed to turn on their stomachs before the wall in order to perform a “flip-turn”. Previously, they had to reach and flip backwards and a variation of it, known as a “bucket turn” or a “suicide turn”, is sometimes used in individual medley events to transition from backstroke to breaststroke.
The foundation of FINA in 1908 signalled the commencement of recording the first official world records in swimming. At that time records could be established in any swimming pool of length not less than 25 yards, and records were also accepted for intermediate distance split times from longer distance events. Today World Records will only be accepted when times are reported by Automatic Officiating Equipment, or Semi-Automatic Officiating Equipment in the case of Automatic Officiating Equipment system malfunction.
Records in events such as 300 yd, 300 m, 1000 yd, and 1000 m freestyle, 400 m backstroke, and 400 m and 500 m breaststroke were no longer ratified from 1948. A further removal of the 500 yd and 500 m freestyle, 150 m backstroke, and 3×100 m medley relay from the record listings occurred in 1952.
In 1952, the national federations of the United States and Japan proposed at the FINA Congress the separation of records achieved in long-course and short-course pools, however it was four more years before action to came into effect with Congress deciding to retain only records held in 50 m pools as the official world record listings.
By 1969 there were thirty-one events in which FINA recognised official world records – 16 for men, 15 for women – closely resembling the event schedule that was in use at the Olympic Games.
The increase in accuracy and reliability of electronic timing equipment led to the introduction of hundredths of a second to the time records from 21 August 1972.
Records in short course (25 m) pools began to be officially approved as “short course world records” from 3 March 1991. Prior to this date, times in short course (25 m) pools were not officially recognised, but were regarded a “world best time” (WBT). From 31 October 1994 times in 50 m backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly were added to the official record listings.