What is Olympic Swimming?

The Basics of Olympic Swimming

What is Olympic swimming? It is one of the most watched Summer Olympic sports. Olympic swimming is also one of the oldest Olympic events.

Olympic swimmers must use one of four different swimming styles or techniques (or all four strokes in some races) to swim a certain distance. The fastest swimmer wins the Olympic Swimming gold medal.


In the modern Olympics, there are 16 Olympic Swimming events that take place in the swim pool (plus one that takes place in open water):

  • Freestyle: 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m (women only) & 1500m (men only)
  • Backstroke: 100m & 200m
  • Breaststroke: 100m & 200m
  • Butterfly: 100m & 200m
  • Individual medley: 200m & 400m - this event is often called the "IM"
    In the individual medley events, the competitor swims one leg each of four types of stroke, in order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.
  • Relay: 4x100m free, 4x200m free & 4x100m medley
    In the medley relay a different swimmer swims each leg using a particular stoke, but in a different order than the one used in the individual medley; backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle.
  • 10-kilometer open water race (for the Beijing Olympics, this event will be held in the Olympic rowing basin.

Freestyle is not really a specific stroke. Swimmers can use whatever stroke they choose, but the since the fastest stroke for most swimmers is the front crawl, that has become the default style used in freestyle events.

Swimmers could use any style in a freestyle event, even one they make up themselves. In the medley events, when the freestyle leg comes, swimmers may not use a stroke that has been previously used, so they must do something other than butterfly, backstroke, or breaststroke. Freestylers can swim up to 15 meters underwater from the start and after each turn, but they usually surface earlier.

Backstroke is sort of an upside down freestyle stroke. Competitors must swim on their backs with their eyes up. They are allowed to rotate their body to some degree as they swim. This is the only race where competitors start in the water although they can still spend 15 meters underwater from the start and after each turn; backstrokers often do butterfly kicks during this underwater portion of the race.

Breaststroke is probably the oldest formalized stroke, and it often reminds people of a frog. Nowadays it looks more like a hyper-active frog! Swimmers must swim face down, moving their arms and legs together in a horizontal direction. Their head can be immersed completely, but it must break the surface of the water at least once during every stroke. While underwater at the start and the turns, swimmers are only allowed to make one arm stroke and one leg kick; there is no specific distance limit. A recent rule change allows breaststrokers to take one butterfly kick during the underwater pull during the start and turns.

The most physically demanding of all the strokes, butterfly evolved from the breaststroke, and was invented by a swimmer from Iowa. It differs from breaststroke in that the arms and legs, which must move together during a stroke, move vertically rather than horizontally.

The arms recover above the water and the legs kick as if they were a fish tail, with the toes turned in-wards, sort of pigeon-toed. Butterflyers can swim up to 15 meters underwater from the start and after each turn using a butterfly kick.


Olympic swimming takes place in a 50-meter swimming pool with at least 8 separate lanes, one for each swimmer. The lanes are separated by a wave absorbing lane line or lane rope. The pools are deep - 5-feet or deeper - and have a variety of high-tech features that minimize turbulence for the swimmers. Each race starts from the starting blocks, a raised platform at one end of the pool.

Swimmers wear suits (regulated by FINA, the international governing body for swimming) and goggles. Most swimmers also wear swim caps to minimize drag.

Officials are present to enforce the technical rules of swimming so the competition is fair and equitable.

Officials must attend clinics, pass written tests, and work at many swim meets before being certified and invited to be officials at the Olympic Games.


Only two swimmers per country, per individual event, are allowed to compete in any individual event. Some countries may not have any entries in some events or might have only one entry, all based on how many of their swimmers achieved Olympic qualifying times. Each country is allowed to enter one relay team; the swimmers on that relay team may be different in the preliminary and final heats.

Each heat race has a maximum of eight swimmers, and there can be multiple heats for any event. There are preliminary heats in the 50m, 100m and 200m distances that lead to semi-finals and then finals, all based on who swims the fastest. In the relays and longer individual events the eight fastest finishers in the preliminary heats advance straight through to the finals.

The fastest swims in the finals earn the gold, silver, and bronze medals. Finish times are taken to the hundredth (.00). Because of this, ties could occur if multiple swimmers finish a race with identical times.

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Luebbers, Mat. "What is Olympic Swimming?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 11, 2014, thoughtco.com/what-is-olympic-swimming-3169877. Luebbers, Mat. (2014, April 11). What is Olympic Swimming? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-olympic-swimming-3169877 Luebbers, Mat. "What is Olympic Swimming?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-olympic-swimming-3169877 (accessed December 12, 2017).