skip to content

Swimming can be dated back to the Stone Age, but did not truly become an organised sport until the early 19th century.

An ancient discipline

Prehistoric man learnt to swim in order to cross rivers and lakes – we know this because cave paintings from the Stone Age depicting swimmers have been found in Egypt. Swimming was also referred to in Greek mythology.

Dawn of a sport

Swimming was not widely practised until the early 19th century, when the National Swimming Society of Great Britain began to hold competitions. Most early swimmers used the breaststroke, or a form of it.

Discovering the crawl

Based on a stroke used by native South Americans, the first version of the crawl featured a scissor kick. In the late 1880s, an Englishman named Frederick Cavill travelled to the South Seas, where he saw the natives performing a crawl with a flutter kick. Cavill settled in Australia, where he taught the stroke that was to become the famous Australian crawl.

Olympic history

Swimming has featured on the programme of all editions of the Games since 1896. The very first Olympic events were freestyle (crawl) or breaststroke. Backstroke was added in 1904.

In the 1940s, breaststrokers discovered that they could go faster by bringing both arms forward over their heads. This practice was immediately forbidden in breaststroke, but gave birth to butterfly, whose first official appearance was at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. This style is now one of the four strokes used in competition.

Women’s swimming became Olympic in 1912 at the Stockholm Games. Since then, it has been part of every edition of the Games. The men’s and women’s programmes are almost identical, as they contain the same number of events, with only one difference: the freestyle distance is 800 metres for women and 1,500 metres for men.



10:29 play

Swimming with Tarzan | Paris 1924

Duke Kahanamoku vs. Johnny Weissmuller: a rivalry that stared in the pool in Paris 1924 and transcended to the silver screen.
31:44 play

Katie Ledecky: Every Olympic gold medal-winning race

Get comfy and enjoy every gold medal-winning race from Katie Ledecky at the Olympics, including her breakthrough at London 2012.
6:06 play

Under the Shadow of Spitz | Munich 1972

Mark Spitz’s record-breaking run to his seventh gold medal had only one obstacle left: Australia’s Olympic champion Mike Wenden.
0:52 play

On The Line: Swimming

The inside story on the unknown, overlooked, and unforgettable moments from swimming.
8:36 play

Men's 4x100m Medley Relay Final | Rio 2016 Replays

Team USA win gold in the men's 4x100m medley final and set a new Olympic record in Michael Phelps' final race.
3:38 play

Late Lezak show delivers USA relay glory

Jason Lezak swims a superb final leg as the United States edge out France to win a thrilling 4x100m freestyle relay in Beijing 2008.

back to top Fr