The summer Olympic games are right around the corner. Come the first week of August; we'll all be sitting around with friends and family watching the greatest athletes in the world compete against each other. And what better way to prepare for the Olympics than by exploring one of the most exciting sports in the games?competitive swimming. Swimming has been a part of the summer Olympic games since their inception in April of 1896. It is one of the most physically challenging sports to participate in, and one of the most exciting to watch as a spectator. Swimming boasts some of the most talented athletes who have ever lived, and it has evolved into a variety of competitions that have pushed these world-class swimmers to achieve new levels of performance. But before we can really appreciate swimming as the Olympic sport we recognize today, a brief look at swimming's history is necessary.



Swimming in the Paleolithic

Swimming appeared very early in our history and only gained popularity over time. Archaeologists have traced swimming's origins all the way back to the late stone age, some 10,000 years ago. Paintings discovered in 1933 in the appropriately named "Cave of Swimmers" in southeast Egypt appear to depict four people with their arms bent into a position that looks strikingly similar to the front crawl.

There is notable evidence that a wetter climate and greener geography in ancient Egypt would have made it an appropriate setting for swimming. As recently as 5,000 years ago, North Africa was covered with lakes and grasslands and populated by elephants and giraffes. This is probably why cave art from the period also features depictions of these animals alongside humans.



Hebrews, Greeks and Romans All Swim


Other equally ancient drawings from all over the near east and Mediterranean regions depict swimming. Ancient written texts explicitly discuss swimming as well, Gilgamesh, Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Old Testament all being examples. Ancient Rome too has a part in this story. According to many historians, Roman citizens seemed to take a negative view of athletics generally, but they thoroughly enjoyed swimming in vast, cold pools.

Roman boys were especially fond of swimming in the Tiber river. The river offered a convenient swimming hole because it was located next to a flood plain called the Campus Martius, which served as a playground for Roman youth. The widespread popularity of swimming would explain in part why the empire was well known for its luxurious baths, which often included large open air swimming pools. The best preserved Roman baths are located in Caracalla in southern Rome.

They were completed in 235 A.D. and featured an Olympic-sized swimming pool with a depth of one meter. The baths in the legendary city of Pompeii also featured a large swimming pool, measuring 13m x 8m by 1.5m deep.



Swimming Becomes Competitive


Moving a little further forward in history, we see swimming take its first steps toward evolving into the sport we know today. Knights in the Middle Ages were taught to swim as part of their training, and literary references became even more widespread. The first book dedicated to swimming was published in 1538 by a German professor of language named Nicolas Wynman. Experts credit Wynman's Colymbetes as the first work to introduce Europeans to proper ?scientific? swimming technique. Several other books on swimming were published in the decades following Wynman's work, which introduced readers to modern swimming techniques like the breaststroke.

It wasn't until the modern era, however, that swimming became a competitive sport. According to the International Olympic Committee, the National Swimming Society of Great Britain began holding competitions in the early 1800s. Most swimmers at the time continue to use some form of the breaststroke, the technique introduced many years earlier by Wynman and his contemporaries. This all changed in the 1880s when an Englishman named Frederick Cavill copied and adapted a stroke he first saw practiced in South America. The International Olympic Committee also reports that "Cavill settled in Australia, where he taught the stroke that was to become the famous Australian crawl."

The First Olympics



Just a few years later in 1896, the very first Olympic games were held in Athens, Greece. There were only four swimming events with 16 swimmers hosted that year, including a sailing contest open only to Greek Sailors. The races in the first Olympic games were open only to men, though would change relatively quickly compared other Olympic sports. The competitions in 1896 were held in the Mediterranean Sea, specifically in the Bay of Zea, because the Olympic Games' organizers were unwilling to invest the necessary resources in building facilities to host the swimming events. Hungarian swimmer and architect Alfréd Hajós took home two of three gold medals that first year. A handful of Greek and Austrian swimmers split the remaining medals between them. The sea was very cold that day, right around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so Hajos and his competitors had to battle the elements in ways future Olympic swimmers would never have to.


After winning the 1,200-metre race, Hajos reportedly said that he was more concerned about surviving the race than actually winning it. Nonetheless, his efforts that year earned him the nickname "The Hungarian Dolphin." The competitors swam freestyle in the first Olympic games, but new techniques and stricter rules were applied shortly after. The backstroke, "a stroke in which the swimmer is on his or her back performing a flutter-kick and rotating the arms alternately backward," was introduced four years later in 1900. There were seven swimming events in total held in the second Olympic games. Two of them, the obstacle course race and underwater race, were very common at the time but have long since lost their former popularity. 76 swimmers from 12 nations competed this time around. The highlight for swimming that year, though, was John Arthur Jarvis' performance in the men's 4,000m race, which was the longest Olympic swimming race until the 10k marathon was introduced in 2008. Jarvis won the race in just under an hour and took home three gold medals in 1900. Jarvis confidently referred to himself as "Amateur Swimming Champion of the World." Don't mistake him as arrogant, however.

The Olympic champion won 108 competitions in his lifetime. With the assistance of fellow English swimmer Joey Nutall, Jarvis developed a kick which made his overarm sidestroke technique even more effective than it was previously. In the 1906 summer Olympic Games again hosted in Athens, Jarvis took home a gold and silver medal. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968. After these first two games, The sport evolved in the Olympics quickly, going from four events in 1896 to nine events in 1912. That year was also significant because women were allowed to compete for the very first time, and the sport as a whole was deemed ?indispensable? to the Olympic games. Since the early 20th century, the number of swimming events has steadily grown, reaching 34 in 2016 and divided evenly between men and women.


The most impressive part of swimming's history, however, are the athletes themselves, and they have come a long way since the first games. Two American swimmers in particular help illustrate this point nicely. In the 1972 summer Olympic games, Mark Spitz broke every swimming record ever set in the history of the sport! In just four years, between 1968 and 1972, Spitz won nine Olympic gold medals, silver, bronze, five Pan Am golds, 31 other amateur titles, and eight college titles, according to the college athletic recruiting organization NCSA. However, the individual most people associate with swimming today is Michael Phelps, and rightly so.

Spitz was undoubtedly a world-class athlete, but as of this writing, Phelps has won exactly twice as many gold medals as Spitz, 18, and 22 Olympic medals overall. In the 2008 games in Beijing, China, Phelps won eight gold medals, taking away yet another record from Spitz. At just 31 years old, Phelps has earned a total of 77 medals in various international swimming competitions. With such a rich history and lineup of incredible athletes competing in increasingly challenging contests, no wonder swimming has become a staple in the Olympic games. Other sports can certainly lay claim to talented competitors and origins far back into human history, but very few can claim the pedigree that swimming does. It's with these impressive facts in mind that we will excitedly tune in to watch swimmers from all over the world face off in hopes of breaking Phelps' illustrious records.