For the world's fastest swimmers, mere hundredths of a second can separate Olympic medallists from the rest of the field.
Tokyo 2020 competition animation "One Minute, One Sport"
We will show you the rules and highlights of swimming in one minute. Whether you are familiar with swimming or want to know more about it, "One Minute, One Sport" explains the sport and how it works. Watch the video below.
Swimmers compete to achieve the fastest time while covering a designated distance using a predetermined stroke (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly). Although no specific stroke is prescribed for freestyle events, all swimmers currently use the crawl, which is the fastest stroke.
At Rio 2016, 32 men's and women's events were held in the pool, including individual and relay races. At Tokyo 2020, there will be 35 events, with the addition of three new competitions: 800m freestyle (men), 1,500m freestyle (women) and 4×100m medley relay (mixed).
The sport's International Federation FINA was formed during the London 1908 Olympic Games, when a pool was used for the first time in Olympic competition and rules were standardised.
- 50m Freestyle (Men/Women)
- 100m Freestyle (Men/Women)
- 200m Freestyle (Men/Women)
- 400m Freestyle (Men/Women)
- 800m Freestyle (Men/Women)
- 1500m Freestyle (Men/Women)
- 100m Backstroke (Men/Women)
- 200m Backstroke (Men/Women)
- 100m Breaststroke (Men/Women)
- 200m Breaststroke (Men/Women)
- 100m Butterfly (Men/Women)
- 200m Butterfly (Men/Women)
- 200m Individual Medley (Men/Women)
- 400m Individual Medley (Men/Women)
- 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay (Men/Women)
- 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay (Men/Women)
- 4 x 100m Medley Relay (Men/Women)
- 4 x 100m Mixed Medley Relay
Essence of the sport
The importance of technique and tactics
The world's top male freestyle swimmers can swim 50m in about 21 seconds, generating extraordinary speed and power. In backstroke, swimmers lie on their backs and use their arms to slide across the water's surface. In butterfly, the swimmers' arms move symmetrically, accompanied by a coordinated leg kick, evoking a flying butterfly. In breaststroke, the only stroke in which swimmers move their hands forward through the water after making a stroke, the key is to produce maximum thrust and minimum drag.
Olympic athletes must hone every detail of their technique, including the diving start, the timing of kicks and turns and the angles through which they move their arms.
Elite swimmers must also pay attention to pacing as a tactic. For example, a swimmer might advance to the final round by swimming quickly during the first half of a preliminary race to establish a dominant time. In the final, that same swimmer might hold back during the first half so that he or she can put in a burst of speed later. Such tactics are an essential part of the sport's appeal.
In individual medley events, a single swimmer competes using all four strokes in the following order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. Since each swimmer has particular strokes in which he or she excels, swimmers' relative positions on the leaderboard sometimes change as the stroke changes. These races are thrilling and fun to watch.
Medley relays differ from individual medleys in that the following stroke order is used: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle. Teams usually include the top-performing athlete for each stroke, creating all-star match-ups. In the 4×100m medley relay (mixed) — a new event — teams consisting of two men and two women can choose who swims each stroke. Men and women may swim against each other at the same time, adding to the excitement.
In team relay events, it's important to shorten the changeover time — the time from one swimmer touching the wall to the next swimmer's legs leaving the starting platform. A poorly executed changeover can cause a team to lose their position in the race, or even to be disqualified if the outgoing swimmer sets off too early.
Outlook for the Tokyo 2020 Games
Changing styles driving new world records
Constant evolution of technique is leading to ever greater levels of performance. Seven world records were set during the finals at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
The 100m breaststroke typifies this trend. At Beijing 2008, Kosuke Kitajima (Japan) became the first person in the world to swim faster than 58 seconds. Kitajima's technique included a streamlined body position to minimise water resistance, lowering the position of his head after each breath for greater efficiency and a reduced number of strokes. This became the dominant style worldwide.
However, at Rio 2016, Adam Peaty (Great Britain) brought major change by achieving extraordinary speed through dynamic, fast-paced swimming that combined a large number of strokes with a powerful kicking movement. Peaty set a world record time of 57:13 and won the gold medal.
New techniques in freestyle, backstroke and butterfly are also emerging with each Olympic Games and driving ever faster times.
Recent years have seen more swimmers competing in multiple events. Katinka Hosszú (Hungary), for example, excels at the individual medley. At the same time, single-event specialists such as Peaty remain. This increasing division of the sport into multi-event swimmers and specialists promises to bring further innovation in the coming years.
Breaststroke. Early 20th century breaststroke rules required swimmers to make a stroke with both hands simultaneously while keeping arm, shoulder and leg movements laterally symmetrical. A technique then emerged in which swimmers brought their hands forward above the water after making a stroke to cut down on the large amount of water resistance encountered while doing so underwater. This became the butterfly stroke. Melbourne 1956 was the first Olympic Games where butterfly was swum as a separate competition.