Illustrated History of Olympic Swimming

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1896 - 1908

Alfréd Hajós, Hungary - the First Olympic Champion in swimming
Alfréd Hajós, Hungary - the First Olympic Champion in swimming. Public Domain

Swimming dates back a long time! Evidence exists, in the form of cave paintings, that even stone age man did some form of swimming. Early Olympic swimming events were often held over roughly measured courses in open water.

1896 - The return of the modern Olympics saw four swimming events, only for men: the 100 meter, 500 meter, and 1200 meter freestyle plus the sailors 100 meter freestyle. Alfréd Hajós of Hungary won the 100 meter and 1200 meter events.

1900 - The Paris Olympics had seven men's swimming events, including a 200 meter obstacle swim and underwater swimming. For the obstacle swim, the swimmers had to climb over or under poles and boats. The underwater swim gave one point for each second underwater and two points for each meter swam while underwater.

1904 - The St. Louis Olympics had 9 swimming events for men. This was the first and only time that the Olympic swimmers raced in yards. This was also the first time a USA swimmer earned Olympic swimming medals.

1908 The London games had 6 races for men: 100, 400, and 1500 meter freestyle, 100 meter backstroke, 200 meter breaststroke, and the 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay. Great Britain won gold in 4 of the events.

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1912 - 1924

Duke Kahanamoku (Lane #5), USA, in a Swimming event at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium
Duke Kahanamoku (Lane #5), USA, in a Swimming event at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. IOC Olympic Museum/Allsport/Getty Images

1912 - The Stockholm Olympics had 7 swimming events for men and, for the first time, two events for women. The women swam a 100 meter freestyle and a 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay. This was the first Olympic games for Hall of Fame Swimmer "Duke" Kahanamoku; he won the 100 meter freestyle.

1916 - No Olympic Games due to wars.

1920 - Antwerp, Belgium hosted the games that saw USA swimmers take 8 of the 10 gold medals. Men swam 7 events, women swam three. "Duke" Kahanamoku was the repeat champion in the 100 meter freestyle.

1924 - The Olympics returned to Paris and offered 6 events for men, 5 for women, with the USA winning 9 golds. Gertrude Ederle, who would become the first woman to swim the English channel two years later, won two bronze medals and a relay gold. On the men's side, Johnny Weissmuller won two individual golds as well as gold in the relay.

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1928 - 1944

Olympic swimming pool after the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Olympic swimming pool after the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. IOC Olympic Museum/Allsport/Getty Images
1928 - The Amsterdam Olympics had 6 men's events and 5 women's events. Johnny Weissmuller repeated as 100 meter freestyle gold medalist, and Buster Crabbe won the 1500 meter bronze. THE USA team won 6 of the 11 gold medals.

1932 - Los Angeles had 6 men's events and 5 women's events, with the Japan men's team dominating the medals with 5 gold, 4 silver, and 2 bronze - that is 11 out of 18 possible medals on the men's side. The only US men's gold was by Buster Crabbe in the 400 meter freestyle. The US women's team fared better, with 4 gold medals, including Eleanor Holm in the 100 meter backstroke.

1936 - The Berlin Games. The Olympic swim program remained the same, 6 men's events and 5 women's events. The Japan men's team only won 3 gold medals, but they were still dominate, taking 11 of the 18 available medals. The USA's Jack Medica won the 400 meter freestyle, and Adolph Kiefer took the 100 meter backstroke gold. The Netherlands women's team was tough to beat, taking 4 out of 5 gold medals.

1940 - No Olympic Games due to wars.

1944 - No Olympic Games due to wars.

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1948 - 1960

1952 Olympic Gold Medal Breaststroker John Davies, Australia (breast and fly were not separated yet)
1952 Olympic Gold Medal Breaststroker John Davies, Australia (breaststroke and butterfly were not separated yet). Public Domain

1948 - A rebuilt London was home for the first post WWII Olympics. Swimming stuck with the 6 men's and 5 women's events. The USA men were untouchable, with gold in all 6 events, silver in 4 events, and bronze in one. The US women split with Denmark, each team earning two gold medals, with the Netherlands picking up one as well.

1952 - Helsinki, and still the same 6 male and 5 female events, with the US men taking 4 of the 6 gold medals. Hungary was the powerhouse for the women's events with 4 gold medals.

1956 - Welcome to Melbourne, and the domination of the Australian Olympic swimmers. The Olympic program added an event for women, and now was:


  • 100 Free
  • 400 Free
  • 1500 Free
  • 100 Back
  • 200 Breast
  • 200 Butterfly
  • 4 x 200 Free Relay


  • 100 Free
  • 400 Free
  • 100 Back
  • 200 Breast
  • 100 Butterfly
  • 4 x 100 Free Relay

The Australian team took 8 out of 13 gold medals, including a 100 meter freestyle gold by Dawn Fraser and the 400/1500 frees by Murray Rose.

1960 - The Olympics were in Rome with the program expanded to 15 events (8 men, 7 women) by adding relays. The USA women took 5 of 7 golds, while the US and Aussie men took 4 each. The men's 100 freestyle had a controversial finish. Australia's Dawn Fraser repeated her 100 freestyle win (start counting - that's two).

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1964 - 1972

Mark Spitz swimming during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Mark Spitz swimming during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images

1964 - Tokyo welcomed the Olympics in '64. Swimming was up to 18 events with more relays. The USA was good on the men's side (7 out of 10 golds) and the women's (6 out of 8 golds). Don Schollander won 4 gold medals (two individual, two relay). Australia's Dawn Fraser again won the 100 freestyle (that's three!).

1968 - Mexico City and, for the first time, a summer Olympics at altitude. What would happen? 52 out of 87 medals for the USA swimming team; Australia came in second in total medals with 8. Swimmers like Mike Burton, Douglas Russell, Charles Hickcox, Gary Hall, Sr., Don Schollander, Debbie Meyer, Jan Henne, and Claudia Kolb were among the USA's best. Not winning an individual gold, but still getting some hardware with a silver in the 100 fly and a couple of relay golds? Mark Spitz.

1972 - Munich. Terrorism hits sports in a big way. Swimming was over by the time the hostage crisis happened, with the USA's Mark Spitz winning an unheard of 7 gold medals. On the woman's side, Shane Gould of Australia pulled off a similar feat with 5 medals, three of them gold, and all of them in individual events. East Germany (GDR) was starting make a showing with silver medals in both women's relay events. Wonder how they will do at the next Olympics?

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1976 - 1980

Kornelia Ender, GDR, 1976 Olympic Games. She was later shown to be on performance enhancers.
Kornelia Ender of the German Democratic Republic takes a break during the swimming competition at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. She was later shown to be on performance enhancers. Allsport UK/Allsport/Getty Images
1976 - Montreal, and a dominance that has never been seen. The USA men won 12 out of 13 gold medals (the won they did not win, the 200 breaststroke, was won by David Wilkie of Great Britain; David swam at the University of Miami). The USA men also took 10 of 11 silver medals (Wilkie was silver in the 100 Breast) and 5 of 10 bronze medals.

How about the women at the 1976 games? Three letter - GDR - and one word - doping (not proven at the time, but now known as fact). The East German team took 11 of 13 golds, 6 of 11 silvers, and 1 bronze. The USA's Shirley Babashoff (wrongly accused of making false statements about swimmers and doping) took silver in four events, and was part of one of the most amazing relays I've ever seen. The USA women's team had no business thinking they could race the East Germans if you looked at the swimmer's best times on paper - but we all know that paper does not hold up well in water. In an awesome team performance, Kim Peyton, Jill Sterkel, Shirley Babashoff, and Wendy Boglioli took the gold.

1980 - The boycott games. Moscow hosted the Olympics and some countries, including the USA, decided not to play. The USA women's team was set to shine in 1980, but that would not happen. The men's team was not bad, either, but neither got to swim in the Olympics. So what did happen in Moscow? Fast swimming to be sure. The Soviet men took 7 out of 13 golds, 7 out of 11 silvers, and 3 of 11 bronze. The (chemically-enhanced)GDR women took 11 out of 13 gold, 8 of 11 silvers, and 7 of 11 bronze medals. This was the last Olympics that allowed a country to enter more than two swimmers in an event!

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1984 - 1988

Tracy Caulkins, USA 400m IM Gold, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics
Tracy Caulkins, USA 400m IM Gold, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She was the best swimmer of her era, but missed her prime due to boycott of 1980 Olympics. Tony Duffy/Getty Images

1984 - Los Angeles, and a pay-back boycott from the Soviet block countries. But just like Moscow, LA had plenty of fast swimmers, like Rowdy Gaines, Michael Gross, Rick Carey, and Alex Baumann on the men's side, and Nancy Hogshead, Carrie Steinseifer, Tiffany Cohen, Mary T. Meagher, and Tracy Caulkins among the women. Several of the 1984 game's swimmers had missed out on the 1980 games, when they may have been at their best. A swimmer named Dara Torres won a gold medal in the freestyle relays (no one knew that she would be back for more medals in 1988, 1992 and 2000 - and maybe 2008) The USA swam away with the most medals, 34, followed by our neighbor to the North, Canada, with 10.

1988 - The games moved across the Pacific to Seoul, South Korea and the return of the boycott teams to the games. The East German women (still on steroids and more) were tough to match - 22 medals - 10 gold, 5 silver, and 7 bronze medals (the East German men won 6 medals, for a total East German medal haul of 28). The highlight for the USA was Janet Evans, distance swimmer supreme, taking the gold in the 400 and 800 free and the 400 IM. The men's side was much more diverse, with swimmers from 8 different countries winning gold medals, including two by the USA's Matt Biondi (50/100 Free) and two by Hungary's Tamás Darnyi (200/400 IM). The US won 18 medals, coming in second in the count.

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 1992 - 1996

Tom Jager, USA, Olympic Sprint Swimmer, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Tom Jager, USA, Olympic Sprint Swimmer, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Simon Bruty/Allsport/Getty Images

1992 - Barcelona hosted the games which featured the Unified team (made up of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics). On the men's side, the US was strong but not overwhelming, as the US only scored 2 out of 15 medals in the individual freestyle events (silver by Biondi and bronze by Jager in the 50 free). Hungary's Tamás Darnyi repeated his 1988 gold medals in the 200 and 400 IM's; Alexander Popov won gold in the 50 and 100 free. The women saw the German team now as one, with much less power. China began to rise, and the doping rumors were heard again. The women's star was Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi, taking gold in both backs and the 400 IM.

1996 - Atlanta was the first time that the event list reached 32. The USA men's and women's teams swept all 6 relays on their way to 13 gold, 11 silver, and 2 bronze medals and the top of the medal list, followed by Australia and Germany with 12 medals each. Ireland's Michelle Smith won three gold medals and a bronze, but was later thought to be doing things the same way as the East German women had. Penelope Heyns (South Africa) won two individual golds (100/200 breast) as did the USA's Amy Van Dyken (50 free/100 fly - she also won two relay gold medals for a total of 4). Alexander Popov (Russia) won the 50/100 free double again, New Zealand's Danyon Loader won the 200/400 free, and Kieren Perkins (Australia) took the 1500 (the only USA men's individual freestyle medals were silver by Gary Hall Jr. in the 50/100 free - he also won two more on relays).

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 2000 - 2004

Misty Hyman, USA, gold medal 200M fly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics
Misty Hyman, USA, gold medal 200M fly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Hyman was an upset winner with an inspirational performance. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

2000 - The USA women won all three gold medals at the Sydney games; on those relays was Jenny Thompson, the best US swimmer to never earn an Olympic gold! The US came out on top in the medal count with 14 gold, 8 silver, and 11 bronze, with Australia in second with 18 medals. Pieter van den Hoogenband claimed the 100/200 free double, while Gary Hall, Jr. and Anthony Ervin tied for gold in the 50 free. The USA's Lenny Krayzelburg won both back events, and Italy's Domenico Fioravanti won the breaststrokes. The men's free relays were a sight to see as the USA tried to overcome the Aussie but came up short both times. Inge de Bruijn (Netherlands) took the 50/100 free and 100 fly golds; Brooke Bennett (USA) won the distance double (400/800 free), Diana Mocanu (Romania) won the 100/200 backstroke, and Yana Klochkova won the 200/400 IM double. In a "swim for the ages" Misty Hyman (USA) won the 200 fly; The Aussie crowd was shocked into silence by her efforts. She had been an "underwater" flyer, swimming most of the race submerged; the rules changed and she was able to adapt.

2004 - Athens was another good Olympics for the USA men, taking 9 of 16 medals(the USA women won 3 gold medals). Pieter van den Hoogenband (Netherlands) repeated int he 100 free, while Gary Hall Jr. (USA) took the 50 free again. Ian Thorpe (Australia) won the 200/400 free. Aaron Peirsol (USA) won the 100/200 back double and Japan's Kosuke Kitajima won the breast double. What's left - the 100/200 fly and 200/400 IM - Michael Phelps, USA showing Olympic Greatness (plus two relay golds). For the women, only Yana Klochkova (Ukraine) won two individual golds (200/400 IM).

of 11

Olympic Swimming, 2008

Milorad Cavic of Serbia and Michael Phelps of the United States
(L-R) Milorad Cavic of Serbia and Michael Phelps of the United States compete in the Men's 100m Butterfly Final. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
2008 - The Beijing Olympics. Michael Phelps becomes the best Olympic Swimmer that ever was, with 8 Olympic Gold Medals. Will anyone do it again?

2008 Olympic Results and Event Schedule

of 11

London 2012 Olympic Aquatics Center

London 2012 Olympic Aquatics Center
Ben Stansall - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Who will be the star of the London swimming pool during the 2012 Olympic Games?


Updated by Dr. John Mullen on April 27, 2016