Science Lends a Hand. Swimming is not exactly the most popular sport in the United States. But it’s one of the most versatile activities that, at the same time, influences a wide demographic.
In other words, swimming can be a sport, a leisurely past time, a form of exercise, or everything above all at once!
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Let’s be honest here: we all have taken, at the very least, a dip in the pool or at the beach at one point.
Needless to say, swimming is a highly relatable activity for the vast majority.
But competitive swimming is on a whole different level—and an Olympic pool design plays a part in it.
Beginnings of the Sport
Even back in the day, we were already naturals at swimming. We’ve quickly learned how to use it to our advantage. Our Stone Age predecessors saw it as a crucial survival skill.
Not long after, our ancestors made some adjustments—swimming was suddenly a recreational activity. During an archaeological dig back in the 1920s, there were sightings that suggested a modified public bath space dating back to as early as 2,500 BC.
This piece of evidence will be later on dubbed as ‘The Great Bath’.
Throughout the following centuries, swimming slowly evolved from a leisure activity to a civilized sport. This jump was thanks to mainly the Victorians, who really did a good job of promoting the development of swimming as a practice.
Fast forward to mid 19th century in London, where the first-ever swimming organization was formed. This will be eventually called the National Swimming Society.
A couple of years after that, specifically in the 1840s, the very first swimming championship was held in Australia. The massive appeal of the competition sparked annual swimming events until it became a serious competitive ritual.
It wasn’t until 1896 when swimming was first featured in the Athens Olympics as an official sport. The competition hosted variants of swimming arenas—100m, 500m, and 1200m races, with men solely allowed to compete for the championship.
From Sea to Pool
The Olympics was quite different back then. To prove their skills, swimmers had to paddle their way not in the safe confines of an Olympic pool—but though the Mediterranean Sea.
For the players, that would mean completing a 100m, 500m, and 1200m distance while racing with their competitors. On top of that, you’ll have to battle through the ocean currents.
Thankfully, the London Olympics was much more forgiving. Come 1908, the organizers decided to build a 100m long pool where the swimming events will be held. To this day, it still remains the largest swimming arena in the whole history of sports.
Official Olympic Swimming Pool Standards
World-class competitions cannot just be held in some random pool. It has to meet the standards set by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA). Let’s list them down:
FINA is extremely tight when it comes to their standards. They are relatively lenient, however, on a pool’s depth. While the minimum depth for a pool is 2 meters (6.674 ft), it can reach 3 meters without violating pool requirements.
An Olympic-sized pool with a depth of 2 meters will hold 660,000 gallons of water.
‘Fast’ Olympic Swimming Pools
Common folks can acknowledge a swimmer’s speed. But if you’re a competitive swimmer yourself, or a junkie at the very least, you may have heard of ‘fast’ swimming pool.
What does that mean, exactly?
Experts think that the design of the pool also plays a factor. The famous Olympic swimming pool in Beijing that first launched last 2008 is one example.
“It’s by far the fastest pool in the world,” said Rowdy Gaines, an Olympic medalist, and swimming commentator, to NPR in 2008. “If you step into this arena, you’ll see a thing of beauty. It’s really a thing of absolute beauty.”
And it really was.
When the Beijing Olympic pool first appeared, dozens of record-breaking moments were made. Renowned swimmer Michael Phelps won his first gold medal in Beijing. And just 10 hours later, the U.S. men’s freestyle category set record-breaking achievements as well.
Beijing’s fast swimming pool broke a total of 29 world records. Since then, its numbers remain undefeated.
What Makes it ‘Fast’?
Records would not be broken without a little help from physics. Before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Olympic pools were not regulated—they varied in sizes and depths.
It was only in 2009 when FINA decided to impose strict rules on what an Olympic pool should be. And to be a ‘fast’ one, in particular, it had to be big and deep.
“You make a deeper and wider pool, and you give all of those waves and all of that splashing and all of that moving water a chance to move away from the swimmers and get out of their way, which makes them go faster. It’s as simple as that,” says Christine Brennan, an Olympics columnist for USA Today.
And she’s right. It’s really simple physics.
The sweet spot for a fast swimming pool is 3 meters, like the one in Beijing.
Gaines explains: “It’s a perfect depth because if it’s too deep, you lose your sense of vision and where you’re at in the pool. But it’s just deep enough to where the waves dissipate (and) the turbulence dissipates down to the bottom.”
A Few Notes
Of course, apart from swimming pool dimensions, there are countless other factors that affect the speed of swimmers.
You also need to consider strength, stamina, experience, and even swimwear! It all boils down to design—not just on the pool, but for everything else.