Swimming became organized as an amateur sport in the late 19th cent. in several countries. Its popularity increased with the development and improvement of the swimming pool, and swimming was part of the first modern Olympic Games (1896). Olympic events for women were included in 1912. Today Olympic swimming events comprise the 50-, 100-, 200-, 400-, 800- (women), and 1,500-meter (men) freestyle races; 200- (men), 400-, and 800-meter (women) freestyle relay races; the 400-meter medley (mixed stroke) relay; 100- and 200-meter backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly races; 200- and 400-meter individual medley races; springboard and high diving events (see diving, springboard and platform); water polo; and women's synchronized swimming. Improvements in swimsuits have contributed to faster times in many race events, most controversially in 2009 when polyurethane suits led to many new records at the world championships. Polyurethane were subsequently banned from competition; full-body suits were also banned. Among the more successful American Olympic swimmers have been John Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Esther Williams, Don Schollander, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, Janet Evans, and Michael Phelps. Among non-Olympic distance events, swimming the English Channel has been most publicized. The first confirmed crossing was made (1875) by Matthew Webb of England; Gertrude Ederle of the United States was the first woman to perform (1926) this feat. Swimming has never achieved sustained success as a professional sport.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.