A History Of Swimming Seen From Several Perspectives
A look into the history of swimming sheds no light as to when swimming was invented, if indeed that is the correct word. Cave paintings indicate that prehistoric man knew how to swim. One can surmise that the very first swimmer probably had watched animals swimming, and when he or she fell into the water one day, the dog paddle was born.
There is of course nothing that establishes the dog paddle as the first swimming stroke used by humans, but it does in one way seem logical, and one could assume that for many centuries, teaching the dog paddle was passed down from generation to generation. It appears that by 4,000 BC, and certainly by 3,000 BC, the Egyptians were using the front crawl and the breaststroke instead of the dog paddle. It also appears that Native Americans were using the front crawl by this time as well, although the history of swimming sheds no light on when they learned the technique. In fact, it was the Native American version of the front crawl that was introduced to the Europeans many centuries later. Swimming was also well established in Asia well before the time of Christ. Swimming was one of the skills the Samurai warrior had to master, and in the history of swimming, the first swimming race on record took place in Japan during the 1st Century BC.
Although swimming was popular in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, there were apparently no organized competitions to speak of, and there were no swimming events in the ancient Olympic Games. Both the Greeks and Romans did have swimming pools however. The history of swimming, like the history of so many things, is not comprised of a steady succession of events and improvements, but rather proceeded along in fits and starts.
Swimmers Have Their Problems - Swimming had a rather rough time of it in Europe during the Middle Ages, even though organized swimming events were happening in the Orient during the same period. Taking a page from the Samurai, the knights of the Middle Ages were expected to learn swimming skills. The knights were even expected to be able to swim while wearing their armor. There doesn't appear to be any record however as to how well that went. In any event, organized swimming had difficulty taking hold in Europe. First, the church opposed the idea, primarily because participants were prancing about in various stages of undress. The general population was quite conservative in matters of dress as well, and bare arms or legs, and even to some a bare neck, was an obscene sight. The Germans even passed a law prohibiting young children, including toddlers, from swimming naked in public. Seems quite harmless, maybe an adult or two decided to join in.
Meanwhile, the Chinese and Japanese proceeded merrily along, forming swimming organizations, holding competitions, and even beating the rest of the world in introducing the concept of lifesaving techniques and organizations. The first swimming book published in Europe was published in Germany in the early 16th century, focusing on the breaststroke, the style of choice in Europe for several centuries. Later in the century, an Englishman wrote a more detailed account, in Latin, which focused more on the scientific and technical aspects of swimming, and included descriptions of the backstroke and crawl in addition to the breaststroke. The publication of these books was a legitimate milestone in the history of swimming, though a knowledge of German or Latin was helpful if you wanted to read them. There were woodcut illustrations in both books as aids in understanding the techniques. A few more books were written in the 17th century and of course many more after that.
Up to nearly the middle of the 19th century, the breaststroke remained the stroke of choice in England, and much of Europe. In 1844, several Native Americans, entering a swimming competition in London, won their events with the front crawl, a much faster technique than the breaststroke. The crawl seemed to the English to be a very inferior method of swimming, not nearly as graceful as the breaststroke. Never mind that it was faster, the English continued to use the crawl in competition for another 30 years.
Let The Games Begin - By the time the Olympic Games were reintroduced and held in Athens in 1896, four swimming events were included in the male-only competitions. These were shorter distances by today's standards, 100 meter, 500 meter, and 1500 meter freestyle events with an additional 100 meter race "for sailors". Four years later in the Paris Olympics, the 4000 meter freestyle was added, along with the 200 meter backstroke and a relay event. By the 1904 games in St. Louis, events featured the breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle, in which most competitors used one or another version of the crawl.
The 1912 Games in Stockholm featured freestyle races open to women for the first time, with a 100 meter freestyle event and 4 by 100 meter freestyle relay. In these games, the Hawaiian, Duke Kahanamoku of surfing fame, won the men's 100 meter freestyle event. Ten years later, Johnny Weissmuller, better known by many as Tarzan in the 1930's and 40's movies, entered the scene, winning 5 gold medals, and never losing a race in his swimming career. Up until World War II and following the war, the number of swimming events in the Olympic Games has steadily increased, records are constantly being broken, and different countries have shown dominance at one time or another, including Germany, Australia, the United States, and China. A history of swimming milestone was achieved in the 1972 Munich Olympics when US swimmer Mark Spitz took home 7 gold medals. This record held for 36 years, until Michael Phelps took 8 gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (continued...)