In ancient times, swimming was a popular means of physical exercise and recreation with the Romans and Ancient Greeks, but it wasn’t part of the original ancient Olympic Games, which held all its events on land.
In fact, swimming wasn’t practised widely as a sport until the early 19th century, with the newly-founded National Swimming Society of Great Britain organising the first competitions in 1837.
Early swimmers used a version of breaststroke, but in 1870 a British swimming instructor called J Arthur Trudgeon was inspired by the over-arm technique of South American natives to create the front crawl-like trudgeon stroke. Another Englishman, Frederick Cavill, was inspired by the similar stroke of natives in the Western Pacific to create the Australian crawl.
Due to the rise in popularity of the sport, swimming events were held in the inaugural modern Summer Games in Athens in 1896. They were very different from the events held today, though. They were held in the open Mediterranean sea in the Bay of Zea, which was unusually icy cold for the time of year.
Events were held for men only, and included the 100m, 400m and 1500m freestyle and breaststroke, with the 100m and 1500m being won by Hungarian Alfred Hajos, who had been inspired to take up swimming following the death of his father in a drowning accident. 40,000 people turned up to watch, though, confirming the popularity of the sport.
In the 1900 Summer Games in Paris, France, events took place in the River Seine, with a 200m backstroke competition added to the swimming schedule, as well as one-off contests for underwater swimming and an obstacle race.
The 50m freestyle and 100m backstroke were added to the programme in the 1904 Summer Games in St Louis, USA, while women were allowed to compete in their own swimming events in the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
Events moved from natural open water to a more manageable 100m-long pool for the 1908 Summer Games in London, England, with the adoption of the now-standard 50m pool coming in the 1924 Summer Games in Paris, France.
The butterfly stroke was created in 1940, when breaststroke swimmers they could go even faster if they moved their arms over their head, and butterfly events joined the Olympic swimming programme for the Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.
Today, men and women compete in virtually the same list of wide-ranging disciplines in a 50m controlled, heated pool – the only difference being that the long-distance race for men covers 1500m, while for women it covers 800m.
The Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 witnessed the introduction of 10km open water events for both men and women.