A Timeline of the History of Swimming as a Sport

A male athlete swims freestyle.

As with most other sports, swimming was born of necessity. Initially, the human ability to run, throw, jump and move through water was simply an ordinary act of survival. But when did swimming become a sport? Although we’ll be exploring some of the earliest accounts of aquatic competition, we can’t really say for sure. But one thing is certain, the story of swimming is a fascinating one and even led to the creation of World Swim Day – an international campaign that empowers people around the world to be more active through swimming – that falls on the last Saturday of October every year.

Take a look at our historical timeline of swimming as a sport and discover how an improved understanding of staying afloat turned into one of the most popular online sports betting lines.  

Women wearing the swimming fashions of various eras.

Ancient history: 9000-4000 BC

Our history of swimming starts with the earliest depiction of swimmers that we know of – a rock painting on a clay seal discovered in what is now called the “Cave of Swimmers” near Wadi Sura in southwestern Egypt. The paintings show humans swimming the front crawl. In addition, wall drawings of people swimming breaststroke or doggy paddle have been found in what was Ancient Babylon and Assyria (now Iraq and Turkey, respectively.) Drawings, paintings and mosaics from later periods have also been discovered throughout the Middle East.

The oldest existing swimming pools can be found in the Mohenjo Daro palace in Pakistan (a 40 by 23 ft pool that dates back to 2800 BC) and the Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete.

The Early Modern Era: 1500-1800

It seems as if our desire to conquer water is as old as our desire to fly. Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of men swimming with the aid of lifebelts still exist. And in 1538, Everard Digby, a Senior Fellow at England’s University of Cambridge, wrote a book in which he suggested that science would eventually allow men to swim better than fish – something Michael Phelps fans would agree with! In 1696, the French author Melchisédech Thévenot wrote The Art of Swimming which became the standard instruction manual for swimming. Almost a century later, in 1793, German teacher Johann GutsMuths published Exercise for Youth in which he presented a three-step approach to learning to swim, a technique that is still used today.

The Gilded Age: 1870s-1900

While some accounts exist of people swimming at seashore resorts in Great Britain in the late 1600s – usually as a type of water therapy – it wasn’t until the 1800s that swimming first became a popular recreational activity and then a sport.

In 1837 the National Swimming Society was founded in England with the purpose of staging competitions at London’s six indoor pools. However, the world’s first annual swimming championship only took place another nine years later in Australia.

While small groups and individuals had been encouraging swimming initiatives for some time – Nancy Edberg, for example, had been giving swimming lessons in Stockholm since 1847 and was a pioneer of the sport among women – it was the Metropolitan Swimming Clubs of London who, in the 1870s, inspired many European nations to form their own national swimming federations, which many of them did between 1882 and 1889.

In the USA, the Amateur Athletic Union was founded in 1888 and started promoting swimming nationally as a sport. In 1909, the Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur body, which oversaw international swimming competitions, was established.

The competitive dawn: 1896

No initiative has done more to raise the international profile of swimming than the Olympic Games, which has become the home of all sports – including some very strange ones! But when did swimming become an Olympic sport? The history of swimming at the Olympic Games began when the first modern games were held in Athens, Greece in 1896. It is also one of only four sports to have featured at every Games since then – the others being athletics, fencing and artistic gymnastics.

At first, only men were allowed to compete and far from the ordered business of today’s swimming meets, event formats could be quite unorthodox. For example, one Olympic swimming event in 1900 required entrants to complete a 200m obstacle course on France’s Seine River and included clambering over a pole-like obstacle and swimming under a line of boats! Participants were also allowed to swim using any method of their choosing so long as they were unaided. But,  by the 1970s, the variety of permitted strokes had been reduced to butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle or crawl.  

Women’s swimming events were only added to the Olympic schedule as recently as the 1912 Stockholm Games.

These days, swimming events at the Summer Olympic Games all take place in 50m pools. Both men and women compete in 17 events that comprise 14 individual races, three relays and one mixed relay. These events include:

  • Freestyle races of 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m
  • Backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly races over 100m and 200m
  • Individual medley races ( a combination of swimming styles) over 200m and 400m
  • Freestyle relays of 4×100m and 4×200m
  • The medley relay of 4×100m.

Three of the greatest moments in Olympic swimming history

Male competitive swimmers competing in a butterfly race.

While there have been dozens of scintillating moments in swimming over the past 100 years, these are our Olympic favorites.

1924 and 1928: Johnny Weissmuller won three gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics, then, in 1928, won another two golds at the Amsterdam Olympics. By the age of 25 he’d set 67 world records. Weissmuller moved to Hollywood in 1929 and became even more famous for acting in the 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape Man.

1972: Californian Mark Spitz entered seven Olympic events and stated that he intended to win gold in all of them. Interestingly, the year before, Congress had reduced the tax on all sports bets from 10% to 2%, which set in motion a rebirth of legal sports betting in Las Vegas – you can learn more about the history of sports betting in the USA here. While many did not believe the swimmer was capable of pulling off seven golds as he continued to win event after event in Munich, the odds soon turned in his favor. Spitz not only won gold in all his events but he and his American teammates also set seven world records! If you’d like to know more about swimming betting, read our blog Explaining Different Types of Sports Bets, which includes advice on different types of bets, including the parlay bet and how to bet on sports.

2008: In the Beijing Olympics that year, Team USA won the Men’s 4x100m freestyle relay for the first time in 12 years in a race that turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of swimming history. While the French team was the online betting favorites to take gold, Team USA, which consisted of Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak, Cullen Jones and Garrett Weber-Gale, came from 0.6 of a second behind the French in the last 50m to win the race. Phelps went on to make history as the only person to ever win eight gold medals at one Olympic Games.

2012: Michael Phelps is considered by many to be the GOAT (greatest of all time) and despite having a less-than-stellar performance at the 2012 Olympics, Phelps still made his way into the history books. In 2012 he became the athlete who had won the most Olympics medals – 19! He has retained the title but, at present, with a total of 28 medals, putting him 10 medals ahead of the second place athlete, gymnast Larisa Latynina. 

2016: While Phelps had originally planned to retire in 2012, he didn’t stay retired for very long. He was back in the water in 2013 and made another splash at the 2016 Olympics where he claimed five medals. He cemented his place in the history of swimming by winning four gold medals and one silver.

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We hope you’ve found this brief dive into swimming and its history informative. If you’re interested in sports betting and are looking for all the latest odds and betting lines for all your favorite sports and events, global and local, register at the online sportsbook, Borgata Online. 
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