An introduction to swimming at the Olympics

About the Sport

Athletes have been racing in competitive swimming at the Olympics since the very first modern day Olympic Games in 1896, where it was one of the original nine sports.

The sport remains one of the most popular and universal Olympic sports to this day, with swimmers from 166 nations competing at London 2012, 19 of them seeing their flags raised after winning medals in London Aquatics Centre.

Swimming at the Olympics has changed a lot since 1896, where there were just four men’s races, all held in the Mediterranean Sea.

It wasn’t until the London Games in 1908 when swimming at the Olympics was contested in a pool, with organisers building a 100m long pool in the middle of the athletics running track.

A variety of swimming events were trialled in the early stagings of the Olympic  Games. Relay races were one of the concepts to endure while a few other ideas – the 200m obstacle race or the underwater event – didn’t catch on.

Women’s races were added at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm while other innovations to become commonplace included starting blocks (added for the 1936 Olympics) and swimming goggles (permitted for the first time at the 1976 Olympics).

Swimming at the Olympics: Strokes

Individual races are now held in four strokes at the Olympics as well as a combination of the four called individual medley (IM).

Click the links to find out more about the history of the individual swimming strokes:

  1. Front Crawl (Freestyle)
  2. Backstroke
  3. Breaststroke
  4. Butterfly
  5. Individual Medley

Races are held over a variety of distances in the pool at an Olympic Games, from 50m to 1,500m – that’s 60 lengths of a 25m pool or 30 lengths of an Olympic-sized 50m pool.

  • Click here to find out more about competitive swimming pools.

In 2008, a 10km open water ‘Marathon’ event was added to the schedule of swimming at the Olympics, with English swimmers Keri-anne Payne and Cassandra Patten winning silver and bronze respectively in the women’s race.

  • Click here to find out more about open water swimming.