Present in civilisation since the Stone Age, when men swam in rivers and lakes looking for food, Swimming only gained popularity as a sport in the early 19th century, when various competitions were held in England. Initially, the most popular technique was breaststroke.
The sport has been present at the Games since the first edition of the Modern Era in 1896, in the city of Athens, Greece, although it was held in open water then. Swimming pools only started to be used in 1908, in London, when the rules of the sport were made official.
The first styles were freestyle and breaststroke. Backstroke entered the Olympic programme in 1904, in the American city of St. Louis, and the butterfly only in 1956, in Melbourne, Australia. The latter style arose after some swimmers developed a technique of raising their arms above the water to gain speed in breaststroke races.
Women began competing in Olympic Swimming in 1912, when the Games were held in Stockholm, Sweden. Since then, the discipline has been present in all Olympic programmes.
At the Atlanta 1996 Games, the programme of 17 events for men, and the same number for women, became almost identical, with one small difference: the women’s long-distance race is 800 metres, while the men’s long-distance race is 1,500 metres. The 2008 Games in Beijing saw the first Marathon Swimming, the only Swimming event held in open water.
Swimming races involve speed, resistance and strength. The winner is whoever completes the race in the shortest time. Races are broken down by distance (50, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 m) and style (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly). As well as individual races, there are relay races, with teams of four swimmers. Participants wear special goggles, a swim cap and specific swimsuits to reduce the water’s resistance.
Olympic swimming pools are 50 m long, 25 m wide and 3 m deep. They are divided into ten lanes, although only eight are used. Each event has an elimination stage, and the eight best performing individual swimmers or teams go through to the final round.