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Speed Swimming

Speed swimming is defined as sprints and middle distances, upto 1500 metres. It includes freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly and is one the major amateur sports around the world.


Speed swimming was practised throughout the ancient world for utilitarian and health reasons. The Egyptian hieroglyph for swimming depicted a man's head and one arm forward and the other back, and in Greek the phrase for the fundamentals of education was 'the alphabet and swimming'. Greek historians Herodotus [485-425 BC] and Thucydides [484-425 BC] too wrote about the significance of swimming, but it was Pausanias [2nd century AD] who recorded that swimming races were held in honour of the Greek God Dionysus.

But it was not until the 19th century that regular, organised swimming events began to develop. Swimming baths were opened in Liverpool, England in 1828 and other cities soon followed. Sydney, Australia, saw similar developments in competitive swimming. The first 'world championship' is believed to have been held in Australia on 9th February 1858, where Joseph Bennet from Sydney beat an Englishman Charles Steedman [1830] in a 100 yard event.

The keeping of world record times has been a significant aspect of speed swimming, and a race against the clock is an important element of the 'spirit of sport'. Earlier, social acceptability and regulations, not swimming efficiency, governed both the styles and materials of men's and women. The neck-to-knee costumes worn into the 1930's were made of a wool or heavy cotton, which retained much more water than nylon, which was introduced in the 1950's, or the brief Lycra costumes of the 1980's. It was not until the 1924 Olympics in Paris that events were held in a stadium constructed especially for swimming and divided into lengths separated by floating markers.

Primary Strokes

The basic rule in speed swimming is that the swimmer who touches the wall first wins. Rules cover strokes and set standard race distances and events [relays, medleys]. Strokes have evolved as swimmers discover more efficient ways to move through the water.

One of the major developments was the American kick. Duke Kahanomoku [1890-1968] from the Hawaiian islands, and later Johnny Weissmuller, epitomised this style by swimming in the hydro-plane position, which enabled the kick to start at the hip and thereby obtain maximum efficiency from the legs, as only the flat of the foot broke the surface. Since that time there have been many variations of leg kick in the crawl.

Breast stroke, forms of which are very old, began as a slow and jerky stroke. In 1928 Olympic gold medallist Yashi Yuki Tsuruta [1903=1986] of Japan introduced another modification that produced a fast, non-jerky stroke that basically remained until 1956.

Since the 1950's, surface breaststroke improved remarkably as focus shifted to the power from the arm movement, thereby modifying the traditional belief that the legs provided the primary propulsion.

The rules of butterfly stipulate that it is a double crawl with simultaneous movements of the arms and legs.

Back stroke speed swimming is a relatively recent phenomenon, not recorded until the beginning of the 20th century. The 1900,1904, and 1908 Olympic champions all used an arm-over-arm technique, but the back crawl method used at the 1912 Olympic games by Harry Hebner [1889-1968] has dominated since.

All the material is from 'Encyclopedia of World Sport' edited by David Levinson and Karen Christensen