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Olympic Swimming Rules

Part I - Freestyle and Backstroke in Olympic Swimming

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Opening Of National Aquatics Center Water Cube 28 January 2008

Opening Of National Aquatics Center Water Cube 28 January 2008

Feng Li/Getty Images
Updated June 01, 2012
What are the rules for Olympic Swimming and who makes those rules? At the international and Olympic level, swimming is governed by FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation). They also govern water polo, diving, synchronized swimming, and masters swimming. The complete set of swimming rules for all aspects of the competition are available on the FINA website. Any country that has a swimming program and swim meets to move swimmers onto the international stage set that country's swimming rules based on the FINA rules.

Olympic swimming uses four basic swimming styles or strokes. Freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly (or all four within one race - that is called the IM or individual medley).

Olympic Swimming Competition - Swimming Pool and Open Water

There are 16 swimming pool events for men and women swimmers in the modern Olympic Games. In 2008 an open water, 10-kilometer marathon swimming race was added to the Olympic Swimming program.

Freestyle or Front Crawl

Freestyle is not specifically defined the way other strokes are - it is generally though of as front crawl, but any style could be used, including those not considered as competitive strokes. For competitive swimming purposes, everyone thinks of freestyle as the front crawl.
  • Freestyle is the fastest way to move from one end of the pool to the other (not counting underwater with kicking) and everyone in a freestyle race in the Olympics will use front crawl.
  • In the individual medley and medley relay events, the freestyle portion must be done with a style that has not been used already - so no backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly.
  • Freestyle swimmers use an alternating arm action, an alternating leg action, and breath to the side.
  • Freestyle swimmers use a forward start off of a starting block. They might do a few dolphin kicks or fish-kicks off the start before they surface and begin to swim.
  • Freestylers do a flip turn at each wall. They might do a few dolphin kicks or fish-kicks off of each wall before they surface and begin to swim.
  • Freestylers finish the race by touching the wall with some part of their body, usually one hand.
  • During a freestyle swim, the swimmer's head must break the surface of the water at or before 15-meters from the start and from each turn.

Backstroke or Back Crawl

Backstroke swimmers must be "belly-up" whenever they are swimming, with one exception (on their way into a turn). This is measured by comparing the relative position of each of the swimmer's shoulders.
  • The swimmers must have an alternating arm action (and will have an alternating leg action - that is the fastest way to swim backstroke).
  • Backstroke almost looks like upside-down freestyle.
  • Since a backstroker's face is out of the water most of the time, breathing is easier. Most will use a breathing pattern of in on one arm pull, out on the other, or in and out on each pull. Because of this greater ease of breathing, backstroke races are often "even-split" - the time it takes to do each length is about the same for an Olympic-level swimmers. If they are doing a 200 meter race, it might take 30-seconds for the first 50 meters (faster because of the start), then it might take 32-seconds for each of following 50 meter portions. They would split the race 30-32-32-32.
  • Backstroke swimmers start in the water, with their feet against the wall, hands holding on to a starting grip. The swimmers must be rotated towards "belly-up" when their feet leave the wall, but they might be a little twisted, not 100% "belly-up" until they start their arms.
  • Backstrokers do a flip turn at each wall, and do a few dolphin kicks or fish-kicks off the start or off each wall before they surface and begin to swim. The only time backstrokers are allowed to be "belly-down" is as they approach a turn. As part of the turning movement the swimmers rotates from "belly-up" to "belly-down" and then do a flip turn (just like a freestyle flip turn), pushing off the wall on their backs ("belly-up").
  • Backstrokers must finish "belly-up" (on their backs) by touching the wall with some part of their body, usually one hand.
  • During a backstroke swim, the head must break the surface of the water at or before 15-meters from the start and from each turn wall.

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