Rules & Regulations of Olympic Swimming

Butterfly swimmer

The stakes are high in Olympic swimming, so judges scrutinize the performance of each swimmer. The Federation Internationale de Natation or FINA establishes and enforces rules and regulations for Olympic swimming events. As the international governing body for the sport of swimming, FINA decides where races must occur, and what format they must follow.

The Set Up

All pools used for Olympic swimming events must measure 50 meters in length and have eight swimming lanes, each 2.5 meters wide. The minimum pool depth is 2 meters. Competitors use elevated starting blocks from which they perform dive starts for the freestyle, breaststroke and butterfly events. Backstroke competitors start in the pool and push off when the starting buzzer sounds. Electronic timer pads placed underwater register a swimmer's touch at the end of a race. Open-water races can take place in either saltwater or freshwater and in oceans, lakes or rivers.

Competition Officials

Olympic swimming relies on a small army of officials to make sure that race results are fair and accurate. One referee oversees the entire operation. Olympic regulatory teams include four stroke judges who look for irregularities in acceptable stroke mechanics, two race-start officials, two lead turn officials and two dedicated turn inspectors for each end of every lane who check that each swimmer touches the wall and turns correctly. Open-water races supplement technical staff with safety and medical officers.

Swim Events

Swimmers compete in a total of 34 events, split equally between female and male competitors. Of all the events, only the 10K takes place outside the pool in open water. Breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly races require swimmers to use the assigned strokes. Only freestyle lets you choose your stroke, which usually is the front crawl, the fastest of the four competitive strokes. Racers can swim underwater for up to 15 meters after the initial start dive and after pushing off from the wall after a turn. Any swimmer whose head fails to break the surface of the water at 15 meters faces elimination.

Swim Suit Regulations

In 2010, FINA banned the high-tech, ultra-tight bodysuits that swimmers wore at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 World Swimming Championships. The impermeable, polyurethane and neoprene suits repelled water and buoyed compressed bodies. Swimmers who wore the suits won races and shattered world and Olympic records, which fell in unprecedented numbers. Officials, fans and some swimmers concluded that the suits unduly influenced race results. Currently, suits must be made primarily from woven fabric rather than polyurethane or neoprene. Men's suits may reach only from the waist to the knees. Women can wear suits that extend from the chest to the knees.

Rules Against Paraphernalia

FINA supplements swimming rules with some prohibitions that might seem self-evident. Swimmers must finish the race in the same lane in which they started. Swimmers cannot pull on the lane line to propel themselves, nor can they walk along the bottom of the pool during the race. Rules forbid any flotation or propulsion devices, which means that Olympians can't use swim fins, webbed gloves or hand paddles.