Why do we have different stroke categories in swimming rather than only competing freestyle at different distances? To be specific, what was the originating reason and why do these separate categories persist today? Has there ever been any debate about it?

This question is similar question to why do we have different athletic disciplines for walking and running? When they are both about moving along the ground over a set distance the fastest without equipment why add another category restricted to a "way of doing it"?

  • 2
    There's an argument to be made that specifying the "way of doing it" restricts the innovation and "meta games" within a discipline which comes from competing styles (see Mixed Martial Arts compared to the traditional styles). The question is not meant to criticise the status quo, but understand the reasons or philosophy behind the different formats of competition.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 19:15

3 Answers 3


As with most sports, undoubtedly much of the reason is historical. It wasn't to suppress innovation, but actually as a result of it; for most of swimming history, "freestyle" was always where the innovation occurred (hence the name, meaning you could do whatever you wanted stroke-wise) and the other strokes were to preserve specific strokes that otherwise would have been lost to that innovation. The quotes below are from this Washington Post article.

The Breaststroke was the first swimming stroke in modern Europe, written about in the sixteenth century, and undoubtedly is part of the games for that reason; until the 19th century, it seems to have been the primary stroke, and was the main stroke used in early 19th century competitions.

By 1837, when modern competitive swimming began in London, several indoor pools already existed. The National Swimming Society regulated competition. The breaststroke and the recently developed sidestroke were used.

The other strokes developed from these for the most part. The sidestroke gave way to the front crawl, though it's unclear why the sidestroke didn't persist but the breaststroke did (I'd guess probably because the breaststroke had been around for centuries, and the sidestroke hadn't, but it's just a guess). The front crawl itself had been practiced thousands of years ago, but wasn't a thing in Europe at the time; it had, though, been remembered by other cultures, such as the Native Americans who medaled at a competition using a form of crawl:

In 1844, Native Americans swam in a London meet. Flying Gull swam 130 feet in 30 seconds to defeat Tobacco and win a medal. Their stroke was described as thrashing the water with their arms in a motion "like a windmill" and kicking in an up-and-down motion. This early form of the front crawl was successful in that race, but the English continued to prefer the breaststroke for competition.

The Butterfly evolved directly from the breaststroke, as an attempt to improve breaststroke performance. It was made illegal during breaststroke competitions, but was made its own stroke in competition:

Even though the butterfly breaststroke, as it was called, was faster than the breaststroke, the dolphin fishtail kick was declared a violation of competitive rules. For the next 20 years, champion breaststrokers used an out-of-water arm recovery (butterfly) with a shortened breaststroke kick. In the late 1950s, the butterfly stroke with the dolphin kick was legalized as a separate stroke for competition.

The article doesn't mention why backstroke is its own event, and I can't find an explanation, so I won't guess, other than to note that it's a popular stroke among the less fit, given its ease when not swimming competitively.

Ultimately, it seems likely that the breaststroke and the butterfly, at least, exist in competition because that's all there was in competition originally; and then later, the breaststroke became a specifically mentioned stroke (as opposed to "freestyle", which now just means the crawl) presumably to protect those swimmers who enjoyed success at the breaststroke once the crawl was introduced to competitive swimming (and clearly far superior, speed-wise). The butterfly was presumably made a competitive stroke for the same reason - to allow people to do the interesting new stroke without affecting the breaststroke competitors who wanted to do it the traditional way.

  • It's interesting to note that freestyle isn't truly free style either, as they don't allow the use of underwater dolphin kick from start to finish, which could be faster than crawl. If they were to allow it, maybe they would have to create a separate category for crawl. Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 13:22

If everything were freestyle, then the only stroke that we would ever see would be the front crawl. As that's the only stroke used in freestyle.

We had pretty much that situation twice. The breaststroke was the original competitive swimming stroke. The front crawl was an innovation. Everyone switched to it. So no one was doing the breaststroke anymore. As a result, they made a separate event for just the breaststroke, where the front crawl was prohibited.

Later, the butterfly stroke was developed as a better version of the breaststroke. After about twenty years, people wanted to see the breaststroke again, so a separate event was created.

In theory, I can see how this might have restricted innovation. But in practice, the butterfly stroke would not exist if there'd only been freestyle. Because it is a variant of the breaststroke, which no one swims in freestyle. So the separate breaststroke actually enhanced innovation.

The greater restriction on innovation is the requirement that swimmers keep their heads high enough to breathe. Without that, swimmers might try to swim the race underwater using the dolphin or fish kicks.

It's also worth noting that different strokes highlight different skills. For example, holding one's breath isn't as important in backstroke, where one's face is in the air almost the entire time. But it is important in the other strokes where pushing one's face out of the water in order to breathe slows the swimmer down. The breaststroke requires stronger legs than the others and the latissimus dorsi is less important. As a result, there are some swimmers who compete in the breaststroke or backstroke who wouldn't be competitive in freestyle.

Backstroke is helpful in long distance swimming where one needs to catch one's breath. Some people recommend that triathlon competitors learn it for that reason. The butterfly includes the dolphin kick, which is superior underwater. The breaststroke builds stronger legs and emphasizes different arm and back muscles. So someone who just wants to swim (not competitively) may want to learn the other strokes. And people may enjoy seeing the other strokes used in competition, even if they aren't the fastest.

You of course are free not to care about that and only watch people do the front crawl in freestyle. Freestyle is the most prominent with the most alternative distances already, so that is easy to do.

  • Breathing options are limited in competitive backstroke to about the same level as the front crawl - your head is not high enough above the water to avoid the waves from your arm rotations. Source: personal experience over ~50 years of competition.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 17:30

When there are rules in a game, it allows events to be conducted fairly and the winner can be selected based on skill levels. The Olympic Committee or other Sports Associations may tweak or vary the rules of a game over time, but the game will still be the same unless the changes are substantial and Demonstrate Different Skills.


Eg 1: 100 Meter Dash versus 200 Meter Dash versus Marathon are considered separate events requiring separate skills, but running with blue clothes versus running with green clothes will be the same event.

Eg 2: Playing Basket Ball with team size of 12 versus team size of 14 will be the same game, but replacing the Basket with a large goal makes a new game like Hand Ball.

Eg 3: Playing cricket over 5 Days with 4 innings versus 1 Day with 50 overs each side has substantial Differences.

Eg 4: Tennis on grass court versus clay court is almost same, but changing the court to a small table makes a new game Table Tennis with associated equipment.

Running versus Walking:

These are totally Different with Running always being faster than Walking; No one would ever Walk in a Running Race and finish last while the others would have run and finished much earlier. Hence Walking is a separate event where running is not allowed. Walking fast skills involve Posture, Arm Motion, Stamina, Stride, etc. Running involves reacting to the gun fire, leaping start, acceleration, etc.


In swimming, the strokes have unique challenges and unique advantages, making the Differences substantial and hence considered separate events.

It seems that there were many other strokes and variations earlier in Competitive Swimming, but these were gradually removed, according to Britannica

Similar to the Point about running with specific colours of clothes, there was a time when swimmers used advanced high-tech body-suits and broke world records, but these advancements were banned, yet the event still remains the same because these changes in rules are not substantial.

Certainly, there have been Debates, which resulted in Changes in rules over the years. Currently, the status is that the Strokes require separate skills and accordingly, separate events.

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