Four Reasons Why Swimming is so Popular at the Olympics

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

By Tucker Rivera, Swimming World College Intern. 

Every quadrennial, our beloved aquatic sport earns its eight-day moment in the spotlight. That’s right: every four years, swimming is the most popular sport in the world—if only briefly.

While no official rankings have ever been released about which sports at the Summer Olympics truly have the highest level of viewers, NBC (the network which presents the Games to us laymen) does admit one thing: swimming, gymnastics and track are widely recognized as the most popular.

On Sept. 25, 2018, USA Swimming released the official dates and cuts for the 2020 Olympic trials. To be held in Omaha, Neb. for the fourth trials meet in a row, the U.S. Olympic Trials should prove to entertain yet again. Despite the departure of the all-time-great – Michael Phelps – from our sport’s competition scene, an upsurge of youth have invigorated the sport in ways that many had not anticipated.

As the sport advances, it will also be important to question why swimming is so consistently popular during the Olympic Games, in lieu of its niche status otherwise. What implications might this popularity have on the future of the sport? What does this popularity do to aid the current stars of the sport? Here are four of the reasons why swimming is so popular at the Olympics and their repercussions on the swimming world.

1. Swimming is something that non-swimmers think they could do.

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Photo Courtesy: Tyler Clary

There’s something inherently human about sports like swimming and track. It is their simplicity which allows for the sports to become so highly anticipated during the Olympic Games. Marked by their status as the superior amateur competitors, Olympic swimmers are surrounded by an air that suggests amazing possibilities. Viewers, children and adult alike, have an underlying thought that tells them, “Hey, I could do that!”

Not to mention that swimming is truly a global sport; it is readily-accessible and difficult, though many view it as a leisure activity. This is largely because the technicality of swimming is veiled by the plasticity of water—it offers an illusion of capability that pervades most other sports. To the casual viewer, butterfly is the “stroke with two arms,” not a stroke driven from core strength and hip position. Breaststroke is “the slow one,” not the stroke where 80 percent of a swimmer’s speed comes from their legs, etc.

To most, swimming asks the question: “Who can get from point A to point B, first?” and that’s it. Its rules are easy to follow, its motives uncomplicated and tasks completely natural. To the untrained eye, Olympic swimmers merely appear to be the best at something that is easy to do; this makes the sport easy for onlooker to comprehend.

2. Swim meets dominate the airways.

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

With eight full days of competition including preliminary, semifinal and final heats with genuine international competition, swimming is bound to have massive appeal. If someone is watching the Olympics, they’re going to have to make an effort to avoid stumbling upon a swimming session at some point.

In the 2016 Olympic Games, swimming finals were almost always aired live. Prime time live coverage, mixed with a consistent nightly stream of competition, allowed for American viewers to grow attached to individual athletes. Swimming – a largely individual sport – allows fans not only to take sides for their country but also for the story-lines associated with the Games.

Whether it’s Lilly King’s finger-wag, Phelps’ angry-face, or Maya Dirado’s teary-eyed medal ceremony, swimming becomes the face of American culture during its short period of time in the limelight.

Like most things in North American pop-culture, the higher the platform, the higher the consumption. A graduation from “internet live-stream” to “primetime feature” is destined to increase the interest that the general public might have in a given broadcast.

3. America Wins. A Lot.

US swimmers Michael Phelps (L), Brendan Hansen (2nd L), Jason Lezak (2nd R) and Aaron Peirsol (R) pose with their medals on the podium for the men's 4 x 100m medley relay swimming final medal ceremony at the National Aquatics Center during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in Beijing on August 17, 2008. Michael Phelps became the first man to win eight gold medals at the same Olympics when the US won the men's 4x100m medley relay final in a new world record time. AFP PHOTO / DDP / AXEL SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo Courtesy: Marco Paköeningrat

This part is pretty self-explanatory. For the most part, American sports fans expect the United States to dominate in all facets. America is supposed to be “the best.” In the sport of swimming, the USA reigns supreme.

In the history of the modern Olympiad, the United States has won 553 of 1,674 swimming medals. That’s a third of all medals ever.

For further reference, during the 2016 Olympics, the USA won 16 of the Games’ 35 gold medals (odd number stemming from Simone Manuel’s tie for gold in the women’s 100-meter free). Barring Australia, that’s equal to the quantity of golds earned by every other country combined. We’re good at swimming, and the American public knows it. There’s a certain rush and nearly false sense of personal victory that comes from watching the U.S. National Team destroy its competition.

4. Michael Phelps

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Photo Courtesy: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The United States’ dominance, the sport’s popularity and swimming’s high television ratings during the Olympic Games can largely be accredited to the talents of Phelps. A star from the age of 16, he completely altered the sport of swimming in his equally long Olympic career. Arguably swimming’s first true celebrity, Phelps single-handedly drew a type of attention to the sport that had never existed before the beginning of his dominant reign.

The man’s entire career was seemingly dedicated to becoming the greatest of all-time. His aura and athleticism is historical; his actions and motives were controversial, the American public had no choice but to become enamored with Phelps’ journey. His rivalry with Ryan Lochte, his quest for eight, and his eventual glory gave the sport of swimming a platform that could not have existed without him.

Despite his retirement, it seems he has brought enough attention to the sport that it will continue to be popular in the years to come. The presence of Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel on the national stage will further cement the American legacy of excellence in swimming and undeniably prolong the appeal of the sport to the general public in the years to come.

A Façade of Fortune

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Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports

As swimming fans, all should appreciate the Olympic Games for what they do to expose our sport to the public. However, despite what many may think, Olympic-level swimmers are not rich. Seldom does their fame extend past the summer of an Olympic year.

According to Cody Miller, Olympic medalist from the 2016 Rio Games, many professional swimmers struggle to earn a living wage while competing in their sport. With a few exceptions, swimmers – unlike professional football and basketball players – are not yet afforded the luxury of being full-time athletes.

He also claims that only swimmers with a top-16 world ranking are given a salary by USA Swimming. That salary, $40,000, also effects whether athletes are given sponsorships, aid, etc., by different entities in the sport. Despite global appeal, and being more popular than soccer and basketball at the Olympics, swimming isn’t as lucrative as it should be. According to Miller, only a handful of swimmers make more than $50,000 a year.

Looking ahead, it will be important to understand the potential for stagnation in the sport from its governing bodies. Whether swimmers will ever earn the same lucrative salaries of other elite athletes is something that will remain unknown for a lengthy amount of time. Despite an immense increase in the sport’s popularity in the last 16 years, one might be able to see that professional swimming isn’t nearly as glamorous as it seems once it returns to its niche status.

Because of the Olympic Games and four reasons aforementioned, swimming’s rise in international popularity is experiencing an astronomical increase. Only time will be able to tell if consumers are ever going to be able to stomach the sport of swimming for more than one week every four years.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. Michelle Gutierrez

    Wow! Well I know we miss the practices and the meets!