Why Are Olympic Swimmers Getting Faster?

Every four years, the Summer Olympics dominate the world’s attention. For the U.S., summer events are the most prolific for overall medal count. Few competitions are as anticipated as swimming. It seems like every other Olympic swimming event involves a broken record. But how can these swimmers constantly be breaking records? Let’s dive in.

Olympic swimmers keep smashing records

As of 2016, no Olympic swimming records exist from before 2008. Swimmers are somehow becoming faster than ever before, which makes the races more fun than ever to watch. After all, U.S. swimmers are some of the most decorated Olympic winners, and Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time.

How is it that swimming, which has been a part of the Olympic Games since its very beginning in the 1800s, has suddenly produced the fastest athletes of all time?

Factors involved in going faster

Swimsuits garnered a lot of attention during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Swimmers have been using compression suits for a long time now. Every four years we see what technological improvements have been made to the suits with the goal of making swimmers faster.

These swimsuits are extremely lightweight and hard to rip. They’re so tight it can take swimmers more 20 minutes just to get into one. Suits have gotten so advanced that some of the more high-tech ones have been banned for giving swimmers an unfair advantage.

Another thing to consider is the water itself. While you’d think an Olympic pool wouldn’t be much different than any other manmade body of water, there’s actually a lot of science behind the design of professional pools. In past years, swimmers in the outside lanes were at a disadvantage due to the waves bouncing back at them from against the wall.

Now, pools have drains on the edges so water flows away from the pool, instead of back at the swimmers. The water is kept at a precise temperature that doesn’t make muscles tense or relax too much. The depth is three meters, the standard for top buoyancy with minimal turbulence.

But skills shouldn’t be overlooked

While design elements play a role in a swimmer’s success, these athletes’ skills shouldn’t be ignored. Today’s Olympic athletes have more time to train than ever thanks to sponsorships. Olympic endorsements have increased drastically. This means that athletes don’t need to make money elsewhere while training for the Olympics.

Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in 1972, had to retire from swimming at age 22 because he couldn’t make enough money as a professional athlete to make a living. Today’s athletes make more than enough money from sponsorships to make a living training for the sport they love.

With all-time greats like Phelps and Ryan Lochte and exciting up-and-comers like Katie Ledecky and Ryan Murphy, it’s clear why Olympic swimming gets a lot of attention. It will be interesting to see how today’s young swimmers do on the scoreboards in the coming years.