Why all the different Olympic swimming events?

I can understand freestyle. “Go as fast as you can, prove you’re the fastest, etc”. I can understand that other strokes may provide other advantages, like the breast stroke uses less energy, so you can go longer distances with it. What I don’t get is why you have Olympic events that force you to use a stroke that isn’t the best stroke for a situation.

Like a race that makes you swim a 100 meter breaststroke…the energy a swimmer puts into a 100 meter breaststroke is way more than the energy that they’d put into it if the distance was great enough where they’d have to do that stroke. So the result doesn’t tell you who the best breaststroker is (because that’s the person who can do an endurance race with an endurance stroke), the result doesn’t tell you who the fastest 100 meter swimmer is (because that’s the guy who wins the 100 meter freestyle), the result is just who happens to be able to sprint the fastest using a non-sprinting stroke. But if you make the breaststrokers go a long enough distance that freestyle wouldn’t be a possibility to use, and then you find out who really has the best form.

I mean yes, they have olympic walking events, but it’s not like they have the 100 meter walk, its a distance event.

So, the question is, I guess, is what are the advantages of the other strokes, and why aren’t competitve events in those strokes geared toward measuring the performers results in situations where the stroke has advantages?


Where did you get the assumption that breaststroke is an “endurance stroke”? Over the longest trips possible, including swimming the English Channel, the race around Manhattan etc, swimmers generally use a form of the Australian Crawl, commonly but incorrectly known as ‘freestyle’. (Freestyle merely means that you can use any style you like, with certain exceptions in medley races).

The Aussie Crawl is one of the most efficient long-distance strokes, and is still fast over long distances. Take a look at the 1500m freestyle - noone’s using breaststroke there either.

The Olympics are sporting events, so they don’t necessarily test anything that is “useful” (did you catch the ping-pong finals?). The swimming test the competitors’ ability to conform to the limits of the event in the least time. It’s like asking why there is a 10,000-meter walk, when running is much faster and walking is best suited to longer distances.

For good swimmers, the breaststroke is the slowest stroke overall, at pretty much any distance. (At long distances, it might be somewhat more efficient than a decent butterfly stroke).

FYI, the Aussie Crawl is the fastest in any situation followed, except for the exception mentioned above, by the butterfly, the backstroke and the breaststroke.

(Got to stop hitting Submit so soon!)

Since there’s a large disparity between the strokes, they all have their own categories. A person swimming the freestyle would beat a butterfly swimmer far better than him/her, an OK butterfly swimmer could beat a good breaststroke swimmer, and so on.

You could just as well ask why there is a shot put and a discus. They’re both throwing heavy objects. Why is there a long jump and a triple jump? They’re both ways of jumping.

2-man bobsled and 4-man bobsled.

Pretty much every individual sport tries to get as many variations as it can get on its schedule so more people can win and increase the visibility for the sport.

The team sports can build excitement with round robin play and then have eliminations.

If the individual sports just had one champion, it probably wouldn’t be all that attractive for people to compete in it.

I guess I got my misinformation from observing a co-worker who swam triathalons, who would often swim a majority of the leg with a breaststroke because she couldn’t maintain a crawl at that distance (she was 62, after all, perhaps it was more of a joint issue).

None of these are valid analogies. You throw a shot put with the motion that allows you the greatest distance with a shot put, you throw a discus with the motion that allows you the greatest distance with a discus. You use a technique with the triple jump that allows you the greatest distance with three jumps. 4 man bobsleds travel faster than 2 man bobsleds.

Note that there aren’t events where you throw a discus like a shot put, or where you have to drag an anchor behind your bobsled. Even ping pong, you don’t have a separate sub-division for people who hold the paddle in their mouth. I’m sure that somebody who’s really good at holding their paddle in their mouth could beat a person who speciallized in holding their paddle in their hand, but it doesn’t make sense to me to reward that, since an average person holding a paddle in their hand will destroy somebody holding the paddle in their mouth.

Swimming is the only high-profile event where you’re intentionally slowing down the athletes.


That’s not true.

As I noted in a related thread, what about hurdles or the Race Walk? The former is certainly high-profile, and the only reason for the hurdles is throw an additional hurdle (pun intended :)) in the runners’ path. Hurdles intentionally slow athletes down. The Race Walk also most certainly slows athletes down by adding additional requirements to their technique.

But with hurdles, you’re testing ability to run in a different terrain…I’d be fully in support of altering conditions in the swimming pool to force swimmers to use a different stroke that has advantages in those conditions. But nobody’s been able to come up with such an advantage in this thread.

And race-walking is what I was referring to as “non mainstream”. There are also trotting-only events for horses that I also didn’t mention.

I see where you’re coming from now. The majority of triathliets are not good swimmers, and many do tend to do a breast stroke because they find it easier to do. In reality the breast stroke is one of the hard strokes to do. Also since many tri’s are done in open water it makes it easier to see where you are going.

Table tennis, not ping-pong.

But the different swimming strokes are like the different field events. There are different techniques needed to be successful.

Not every swimmer is good in every single stroke. Most are pretty good, but there are specialists. Some people can win individual medleys, but no swimmer is going to win an individual medal in the free, back, breast, and fly separately. No is that good to learn all those strokes (or even one if you’re me who can’t swim much)

A shot putter and a discus thrower both have to do a lot of strength training, but the discus thrower has to be a little thinner because his event takes uses more speed. But they are still need many similar skils.

There are shooting events where the shooter is in a prone position, others where the shooter is standing up. And another uses 3 positions. Shouldn’t they just shoot from the position that will give them the highest score?

That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m saying. The different field events are ALL “who can run the fastest”/“who can jump the highest/farthest”/“who can throw a thing the farthest” without limitations on technique. The variation is to what you have to jump over, or jump around, or throw, or what equipment you have to do it with.

There are no separate events for “high jump using the flop” and “high jump going head first”. There are no separate events for “100 meter dash” and “100 meter skip” and “100 meter crawl”, although somebody could certainly crawl or skip during part of the 100 meters if they wanted to. So why are there 100 meter freestyle and 100 meter butterfly events?

Theory: perhaps the different strokes originated in/were popular in different parts of the world, and the different countries swimmers wanted events that they could dominate in initially?

(Though I’d argue with you on how good triathletes are at swimming) for the ones who aren’t good, it’s not really “breast stroke,” it’s closer to “breast stroke like movements that sort of propel you forward in the water.” Which, if you aren’t a strong swimmer, is still faster than dogpaddling, keeps your head out of water (and away from other people’s feet), keeps you moving in one direction without veering all over the place, and feels more secure for some people.

I meant the average triathlete is not a very good swimmer, mostly because the swim is not a very important part of the event. Even most of the triathletes say they are not very good swimmers and the work outs that I’ve seen in the mags show that. However, the breast stroke is how many people swim who can not do a good crawl.

I think I see where LordVor is coming from, here. In most sports, you have constraints in the environment and equipment (you can’t do the shot put event with a softball, the marathon is 26 miles, etc.), but you’re free to choose the technique which best suits the environment. While it’s true that almost everyone uses the same technique in any given event, that’s just because they all agree on what’s best. And there’s still room to come up with a revolutionary new technique which works better, as Fosbury showed with the high jump. If there were an event which made it advantageous (but not required) to use the breaststroke, then that would be one thing. But as it is, it’s like they had separate events for freestyle high jump and non-flop high jump. Every argument put forward thus far for a 100m breaststroke event could equally well be made for a non-flop high jump.

The different strokes started at different time in Olympic competition. The backstroke was first held in 1900. The breaststroke in 1904.

The butterfly is the newest stroke according to this link http://www.fact-index.com/b/bu/butterfly_stroke.html

Each stroke is a different way for a swimmer to challenge him or herself to go as fast as possible.

The fact that some are less efficient than others overall doesn’t seem to be a big deal to me and it’s been a staple of swimming competitions for over 100 years.

First of all, since when was the FRONT CRAWL, the most basic of all swimming techniques, called an “Australian Crawl”? Gimme a break, guys. I know Australia does well at the swim events, but let’s not start renaming the front crawl after Australia; it’s like naming the basic method of skating forwards the “Canadian two-step.” I’m pretty sure people were swimming that way a long time before the British discovered Australia.

As to the issue, I’ve always thought swimming had far too many events; in addition to the various strokes, it strikes me as being colossal overkill to have a 50m, 100m, and 200m in the same stroke; 4x100 and 4x200 relays, etc. Obviously different distances can constitute different sorts of athletic prowess, but there’s a limit to what’s reasonable.

I think it’s kind of strange that athletes in one discipline, like swimming, can win three, four, five or more medals in a single Olympics, while athletes in other discplines play the entire two weeks for a shot at one medal. It just seems like FINA has loaded up the maximum possible number of events not because there’s any athletic logic to it, but so their athletes can win more medals. Should track add a 50m dash, a 150m dash, bring back the standing broad jump and split high jump into “Fosbury” and “Scissors” events?

Here’s a link to an article that describes how the basic crawl stroke was named, became associated with Australia, and made it into competition. The interesting stuff is about halfway down the page. The stroke has its roots back to the early Egyptians but was clearly modified in the early 20th century.


I swam competitively growing up and often heard it called “Australian Crawl”.

As to why so many events, you can compare it to track and field where there is the 100, 200, 400, 1500, 5000, 10000, and marathons, not to mention hurdles and steeplechase, plus race walking. I could see getting rid of the 200 meters for some of the non-freestyle events, but 100 and 400 are very different events. Only freestyle has the 50, 800, or 1500 in swimming, right?

I think their are too many sailing events, and too many weight classes in the various fighting events.

Ultimately, I don’t think there is an objective answer for this question.

Either you don’t mind races with different strokes (like me or, more importantly, the IOC and FINA) or you do.

I will only repeat the point that there have been swimming races in the Olympics competed in different strokes the games returned in 1896. (Some in 1896 were never held again). It’s a longtime swimming practice and the swimming community likes it that way.

If track and field were able to reintroduce the standing broad jump, they could, but they would never be able to find enough world class competitors to sell it to the general public. Nor would the public want to watch it. (Not much of the public I would assume)

But people come out to watch world class swimmers swim a bit more slowly using the breaststroke. As long as that happens, you’ve got yourself an Olympic event.

In the Olympics there is only the 50 free, but in most other competitions they swim 50s of the other strokes. Also in the Olympics on the women swim the 800 and the men do the 1500.

I’d like to see an 800 IM.