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Forty thousand people watched the first Olympic swimming contests that were held outdoors in open water. The weather had turned unusually cold at the Bay of Zea at Phaleron, near Piraeus , and on the morning of the competition the temperature in the water had dropped to 13 degrees Celcius (55 degrees Fahrenheit).

Early competitions were held in lakes, rivers, and the open sea, with swimmers competing not only against each other but against the currents, tides, bitter cold, and even 12-foot waves. All events are now held in Olympic-size pools 50 meters long (almost 55 yards) with a minimum of eight lanes, each from 7 to 9 feet (2 to 2.7 m) wide. The water temperature is regulated and must be kept at 25-27º C (77-80º F).

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The Events
The events are categorized by the type of stroke the swimmer uses. Men and women compete separately, with the distances ranging from 50 meters to 1,500 meters for men, and from 50 meters to 800 meters for women. The events included in the Olympic Games include:

Freestyle is where the competitor may swim any stroke he or she prefers, usually the Australian crawl, where the arms alternately come out of the water and the legs flutter kick.

Backstroke is essentially the crawl stroke but with the swimmer’s back turned to the water. Swimmers must stay on their backs at all times.

Breaststroke is where all leg and arm movements must be made simultaneously. The hands must be pushed forward together and from the breast, and must be brought back on or under the surface of the water. Only the backward and out frog-leg kick is allowed.

Butterfly was originally a variation of the breaststroke. The breaststroke had always been a controversial stroke because of ongoing arguments as to what constituted a legal or illegal technique. In the early 1940s some U.S. swimmers discovered a “loophole” in the rules then in force and began to bring their arms back above the surface of the water, saving time and energy. In 1956, this new technique was officially recognized as the fourth Olympic swimming style and given its own set of competitions, separate from the breaststroke.

Individual Medley comprises all four of the above competitive strokes in one race; the order of the strokes is butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle.

Medley Relay is an event swum by a team of four, with each member swimming one leg (one portion or quarter) of the relay.  The race is swum in the order of backstroke first, then breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle.

Freestyle Relay is where each swimmer chooses the stroke he or she will use, with each leg of the race swum by a different team member. As in the medley relay, no individual may swim more than one leg of the event.

The Race
The race is ready to begin when the swimmers are called to the starting position by the starter, who visually makes certain that all swimmers are down and still. Once the starter is satisfied, the race is started by an electronic tone. The race will be recalled if the starter feels that one of the swimmers has “jumped the gun,” and the swimmers will get ready to start the race again. A competitor will be disqualified for causing a second premature start.

Starts and turns are key points of any race; many a race has been lost by a swimmer who starts or turns poorly. Quick turns are essential to a good race. Swimmers must touch the wall in turning in all events; however, in the freestyle and the backstroke, the swimmer may somersault at the wall, touching it only with the feet. In the other two competitive strokes, both hands must touch the wall before the turn can be executed.

There are basically two ways to swim a distance race of 200 meters or more. Some swim it evenly, holding the same pace throughout the entire race. Others employ the “negative split” by swimming the second half of a race faster than the first.

Many male swimmers will shave their arms, legs, chest, and back—and some, even their head—right before the meet to lessen water resistance and increase their speed.

News, History, and Fast Facts

  • Take a look at the official Web site of U.S.A. Swimming. Kids! Visit the organization's Kids Page.
  • The International Olympic Committee site is the official site of the Olympics and a super source for swimming facts and figures.
  • The USOC has compiled a comprehensive site that explores swimming history, rules, and news.
  • For complete information about playing, coaching, and watching swimming, visit EdGate's School Athletics Center: Swimming page.
  • FINA is the International Amateur Federation for the sport of swimming.
  • Swim safely this summer!

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General Sports Links
Olympians will compete in dozens of sports this summer. Even though Gateway to the Summer Games can't feature them all, you can learn about each and every one by visiting the sites listed below.

Portions of the above text were excerpted from Share the Olympic Dream--Volume II.
© 2001 by Griffin Publishing Group/United States Olympic Committee.

For information on purchasing Griffin materials, please visit the Griffin Publishing Group Web site at http://www.griffinpublishing.com.


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Coaches Notes

International Paralympic Committee
International Paralympic Committee

US Paralympics
US Paralympics

Canadian Paralympic Committee
Canadian Paralympic Committee



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