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Upon observing swimming competitions in the Olympics, it is not clear to me whether one of the eight lanes is more advantageous versus another. I've seen vague claims but nothing backed up with science.

In competitive swimming, is there an advantage to being in one lane or another? Furthermore, does the stroke (ie: breast, fly, freestyle, etc.) affect this effect?

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Hard to answer objectively since there's the bias that faster swimmers in prelims are generally placed in center lanes for finals. From experience, swimming in center lanes is better than lanes against the wall because you can see other swimmers better (makes racing easier) and you don't get tossed around in the waves that bounce off the side wall. – user1301 Apr 28 '13 at 21:20
up vote 9 down vote accepted

In competitive swimming, is there an advantage to being in one lane or another?

No. Lane 4 has always been believed to be the "fastest" lane, but there is no scientific evidence of such.

Michael Phelps on being in lane 8 for the 400m individual medley final in the 2012 Olympics:

"The only thing that matters is just getting a spot in. You can't win the gold medal from the morning."

If any given lane had a "competitive advantage," Phelps would most likely have had a different response.

World records, championships, and gold medals have been won from all lanes, especially lane 1 and lane 8.

German female swimmer Franziska van Almsick, swimming in lane 8, set a world record by winning the 200m freestyle with a time of 1:56.78 at the 1994 FINA World Championships. Her world record stood for eight years.

Australian male swimmer Kieren Perkins. swimming in lane 8, won gold in the 1500m freestyle with a time of 14:56.40 at the 1996 Olympics.

Chinese female swimmer Luo Xuejuan, swimming in lane 1, set an Olympic record by winning gold in the 100m breaststroke with a time of 1:06.64 at the 2004 Olympics. This was the third fastest time in history, 0.27 seconds off the world record.

Historically, world records, championships, and gold medals are won in middle lanes. This is because swimmers win their prelims, heats, etc.

The swimmers are placed in their respective lane based on their time. The fastest time will get lane 4 next round and the eighth-fastest time will get lane 8. Lane placement from fastest to eighth-fastest time: 4,5,3,6,2,7,1,8.

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This is all relevant (and frankly very interesting), but doesn't really answer the question. – stevvve Aug 3 '12 at 17:11
In swimming, is there a competitive advantage to being in one lane or another? No. – ᴍᴀsᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴅ_ᴇᴅ Aug 3 '12 at 17:25
Fastest swimmers of preliminaries start in the middle lane, so any research will be highly biased. – Bernhard Aug 3 '12 at 22:34
Using a Michael Phelps quote and anecdotal race results is hardly an answer. The other answers explain why being in the center might be better. – user1301 Apr 28 '13 at 21:23
I thing the point @HartleyBrody was trying to make is that the top athlete in any sport is almost always likely to state that they don't need any sort of advantage and will therefore denounce the existence of such. Better anecdotal evidence would come from someone who consistently races against Michael and loses. Not being at the pinnacle, s/he would be more likely to admit whether such an advantage exists. Regardless, this was still a good answer with good references. – Devin Apr 29 '13 at 18:14

The reason the fastest swimmer is placed in the center lanes is because it's believed to be the "coveted" lane. This is due to the fact that from lanes 4-5, you have the greatest visibility of swimmers in the other lanes. This is an advantage because in competitive races, athletes are known to perform better when they realize a competitor is close.

Also, if a swimmer breathes to the right or left, he will always be able to see half of the field, whereas swimmers in the edge lanes don't have this advantage.

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It used to be that lanes 1 and 8 were considered slower due to reflected waves off the side, but modern pools have wave reduction systems so this is no longer the case.

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