8 Strange Olympic Swimming Events

River Seine_1900

Something fun as a change from everything else that’s happening.  Oh, and the picture above is the start of one of the Olympic races in the River Seine (1900).


8.  First Olympic Breaststroke event (1904)

While it’s the earliest known type of swimming, Breaststroke didn’t make it’s Olympic debut until the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, with Freestyle debuting in 1896 and Backstroke in 1900. And the debut event was 440 yards!

There were only 4 entries, with 3 from Germany and one from USA. In fact, only the Germans were initially entered in the event until Henry Jamison Handy decided to enter the event, and ended winning a bronze for the US.  Georg Zacharias of Germany won the event in 7:23.6.

As a side note, according to Detroit Athletic Club recordsJam_Handy, ‘Jam’ Handy went on to an amazing swimming career with numerous world records in distance freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke. He was also responsible for developing the head-down breathing technique in the early Australian crawl method, as well as kickless front crawl, and being the first to use alternating arms in backstroke. He’s also credited with the idea to paint lines on the bottom of a pool to help swimmers swim straight.


7.  Underwater Swimming (1900)

This may be the strangest swimming event ever in the Olympics. The event took place over 60 metres, with the athlete scoring 2 points for every meter underwater (up to 60 metres), and a further 1 point for each second underwater.

Charles DeVandeville of France won with 188.4 points (60 metres in 1:08.4), beating Andre Six of France who did the 60 metres 3 seconds faster! With every second underwater counting for 1 point, the ultimate goal is to swim the 60 metres underwater slower than anyone else!

Apparently, the bronze medal winner, Peter Lykkeberg of Denmark could have won, as he stayed under for 90 seconds. However, he ended up going in a circle and only covered 28.5 m.

This event was never held again in the Olympics due to lack of spectator appeal.


6.  200 m Obstacle Course (1900)

Hands down, this event is one they should bring back.Fred_Lane_1900 Obstacle course

Swimmers had to cover 200 metres, with 3 obstacles: climb over a pole; then over a row of boats; and then under another row of boats. Interestingly, the winning time for Frederick Lane of Australia (see photo to the right) was 2:38.4, only 13 seconds slower than his winning time in the regular 200 m Freestyle. You can see some of the rowboats behind Fred Lane in the photo.

Seriously, we need to find a way to get this type of event back into local meets.


5.  100 FR for Greek Sailors (1896)

Yes, that’s not a typo. Only sailors of the Greek Royal Navy were allowed to compete. 11 Greek sailors entered the event, but only 3 ended up taking part. The winning time was 2:20.4 by Ioannis Malokinis from (surprise!) Greece. That’s a full 58 seconds slower than the winner of the open 100 Free.

Although this event went against all existing conventions regarding events being open to all countries, it was and still is considered a valid official Olympic event. Not surprisingly this event was never held again.


4.  Plunge for Distance (1904)

This is another event only held once, and was considered part of the Diving events. Participants dove into the pool from a standing position, and then tried to see how far they could go without moving in 60 seconds, or until their head broke the surface.

Only 5 athletes participated in this event – all Americans. (This Olympics was in St. Louis, USA). William Paul Dickey of the US won with an incredible 19.05 m.

1904 olympics Forest Park Lake

The swimming and fancy high diving competitions were held in Forest Park lake near St. Louis, so it only makes sense that the Plunge was also held there. The photo to the right is actually the start of the 1904 100 Freestyle at the Forest Park lake ‘pool’. I would imagine it was very difficult to ensure the swimmers were truly motionless when underwater. Where are the underwater cameras when we need them!


3.  Mens 200-metre Team Swimming (1900)

From a scoring perspective, this event was astonishingly unfair. While not a relay, each of the 4 teams, including one German team and 3 French teams, had 5 swimmers. They were seeded into 4 heats of 5 swimmers, with the fastest 5 seeded times going first, and then the next fastest 5, etc. The team with the lowest number of points for their 5 swimmers wins.

That’s all fine so far, but it’s the scoring that was astonishing.  Points were awarded in each heat according to finishing place in that heat. But the points for the first heat were from 1 point (winner) to 5 points (last in the heat). Points in the second heat ranged from 6 to 10. The third heat was 11 to 15, and the last heat was 16 to 20.

Basically, the better your seed time, the lower your point total no matter how you fast or slow you actually swam your race.

Germany, based on the seeding managed to get 3 swimmers in the first heat, and as a result, won easily. In fact, they were so far ahead that the 5th German  swimmer didn’t even swim, and just took the points for finishing last.

Germany won with 1+2+4+6+20 = 33 points.  Tritons Lillois (France) were second with 3+5+12+13+18 = 51 points.  Oh, and the German’s time for their 4 swimmers?  10:38 (800 metres).


2.  Men’s 200 metre Breaststroke (1956)

In the mid-1950s breaststroke was undergoing large changes. Swimmers were discovering that constantly swimming through the surface of the water slowed you down, and so a form of breaststroke involving only swimming underwater started to become popular. The confusing rules at the time suggested that you couldn’t stay underwater other than after the dive, or a turn.

As a result, the event included some swimmersmasaru-furukawa performing the more traditional breaststroke, but with many primarily swimming underwater. However, some of those swimmers thought that they could surface, and go back underwater, and were subsequently disqualified. The winner, Masura Furukawa (see photo right) swam 45 m underwater for each of the first 3 lengths, and 25 m underwater on the last length. Since he didn’t re-submerge, it was deemed legal.

There were many protests, and the event ended up triggering a 1957 rule change for breaststroke limiting the underwater to one pull and one kick.


 1.  Men’s 200 metre Breaststroke (1936)

If the 1956 version of the 200 BR was wild, the 1936 version was even more so. The early 1930s found swimmers experimenting with different forms of the stroke, and the 1936 Olympics ended up being a showcase for these different and yet legal styles:

  • over-the-water butterfly recovery with the required whip kick
  • full pull past the hips
  • half-pull similar to today’s style

The finals saw all three styles in play.1936 200 BR The two fly-style swimmers starting out fast, but as can be expected, they slowed considerably in the 2nd 100 and fell out of medal contention. The winner, Tetsuo Hamuro, used the half-pull technique but with his forehead above the surface of the water.



Bring back the obstacle course event!

obstacle course

3 thoughts on “8 Strange Olympic Swimming Events

  1. Make SKWIM an Olympic Event. Mens, Womens, Co-ed, and Inter-generational. One person from every decade of life, (under 10, 10-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60 and older)

    1. Mark, I love the idea of introducing SKWIM to any kind of bigger audience. Anything that brings fun to the pool. But don’t you think those 60-year old will feel foolish when the 10-year old are kicking those butts! 😛

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