Marathon Swimming

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

The longest swimming race. A test of endurance for up to two hours.

Tokyo 2020 competition animation "One Minute, One Sport"

We will show you the rules and highlights of marathon swimming in one minute. Whether you are familiar with marathon swimming or want to know more about it, "One Minute, One Sport" explains the sport and how it works. Watch the video below.

One Minute, One Sport | Marathon Swimming
01:18

Overview

Taking place in open water environments such as the sea, rivers and lakes, but with a premium on safety, the men's and women's 10km open water swimming event is known as the marathon swimming event. This event is a relative newcomer to the Olympic programme, making its debut as an official Olympic event at the Beijing 2008 Games. Usually staged on a circular course, the swimmers receive water at regular intervals as their endurance is tested to the maximum for up to two hours. Naturally, records are important, but as the races are often determined by weather and the open water conditions, planning a strategy is of vital importance. The swimmers who are able to use the waves, tides and currents to their best advantage are often those who post the best results. Being in tip-top physical condition is a given, but there also many swimmers with a wealth of experience in skilfully responding to the prevailing conditions and planning the optimal strategies. Watching the competitors swimming neck and neck and overtaking each other makes for great spectator viewing.

Event Programme

  • 10km Marathon Swimming (Men/Women)

Essence of the sport

Introducing the appeal and must-see aspects of marathon swimming. Edging ahead and being overtakenthe race to the finish line is a sight not to be missed!

Marathon swimming (open water swimming) takes place in the first and oldest "environment" for swimming, as in earlier times pools were not available. So, at the first three editions of the Olympic Games (Athens 1896, Paris 1900 and St. Louis 1904) all swimming events took place in an "open water environment". It wasn't until the 1991 World Aquatics Championships held in Perth, Australia that marathon swimming became an official event. At the time, both men's and women's events were held over 25km, taking over five hours to complete. The first time the event was held over 10km was at the 9th FINA World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka, Japan in 2001, and it was over this distance that marathon swimming became an official Olympic event.

The event was first featured on the Olympic programme at the Games of the XXIX Olympiad at Beijing in 2008. The winner of the first gold medal for the men's event was Dutch swimmer Maarten van der Weijden, who also overcame a battle against leukemia to become a true Olympic champion. Larisa Ilchenko, a Russian long-distance swimmer who had long dominated the world swimming championships, won the women's event. Ilchenko's late charge to the finish line saw her overhaul her closest rival by a only a few seconds to claim the gold for Russia.

One of the most interesting aspects of the 10km endurance race occurs around the 7km point, when the swimmers begin to make their move for the finish line. Among the factors that separate medallists from the rest is how they are able to maintain their final charge to the finish line without using up too much energy and strength. Another important aspect is how competitors respond to the course conditions and the changing tempos of the race, where they position themselves during the changes of tempo, and how well they are able to maintain an effective course. Maintaining an effective course depends largely on the course conditions. At sea, tides and currents can change quickly, and it is imperative that these are factored into swimmers' strategies. Seasoned competitors are able to use changes in tides and currents to their advantage. Race winners are often those that forego the shortest routes and instead take up their own position and swim a course away from the main body of swimmers.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of races won by the slimmest of margins. Winners need to possess physical strength, brain power and the ability to remain unfazed by a race that stretches over a daunting 10km. The ability to combine determination, technique and strength to compete for the honour of being the best in the world — that is the essence of marathon swimming.

Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
2016 Getty Images

Outlook for the Tokyo 2020 Games

A closely-fought endurance race that is becoming more and more like a sprint event.

When marathon swimming was first featured as an Olympic event at the Beijing 2008 Games, the majority of competitors were those who solely specialised in the sport. However, as the event began to establish itself, the competitive landscape began to change. Swimmers from other long-distance events gradually began to enter competitions.

A prime example of this can be seen with Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli, winner of the gold medal in the men's marathon swimming event at the London 2012 Games. Mellouli had claimed the gold medal in the men's 1,500m freestyle event at the Beijing 2008 Games and a bronze in the same event at the London 2012 Games, and his success in marathon swimming saw him become the first man ever to win Olympic medals in both pool and open water events. The reason for this dual success can perhaps be found in the fact that the course for the marathon swimming event at the London 2012 Games was the still-water Serpentine lake in London's Hyde Park, meaning swimmers whose speciality was speed rather than purely endurance were also attracted by the course conditions. Incidentally, the marathon swimming events for both the Beijing and London Games were staged on lakes contained in public parks.

Since the London 2012 Games, there has been a remarkable rise in the speeds with which the marathon swimming events have been competed. Along with strategy and experience, there has been an increased focus on speed. The majority of swimmers who currently compete in the marathon swimming events also compete in other long-distance events in the Olympic Games and other major international swimming tournaments.

Perhaps this is the reason why so many long-distance races in recent years — even a race as long and gruelling as 10km — are being won by margins of just a few seconds. A case in point is the men's 10km event at the Rio 2016 Games. This was the first time since the event became a regular feature on the Olympic programme that it had been held in the sea. Some 13 swimmers entered the final 100m together, with Greek swimmer Spyridon Gianniotis and Dutchman Ferry Weertman breaking away from the pack and recording exactly the same finishing time. Eventually, they had to be separated by a photo finish. The photo showed that Gianniotis was in the lead by a head, but that Weertman had touched the finish line first to win. For spectators, it was an amazing finale with the result not being decided until the very last stroke.

Even though the race was fought under open water conditions, this was the first race in which speed had played such a crucial role. European swimmers have been improving in recent years, and are sure to play a big part in marathon swimming for the foreseeable future. So, with speed becoming such a major factor, what kind of race can we look forward to at the Tokyo 2020 Games? One thing is for sure — you won't be able to take your eyes off it for even a second!

Trivia