The above video compares the time progressions of the 100 freestyle from two men who were without a doubt the greatest of their eras, Johnny Weismuller and Mark Spitz, to the defending Olympic Champion in the 100 free, Nathan Adrian, who is vying to be the greatest of his in the post-Phelps years.
100 meter freestyle, the blue ribbon event, is highly desired. Most swimmers want to race it, even if it isn’t their distance.
FINA recognized the event in 1905, but for the first three Olympic Games the event was held in natural bodies of water, not pools.
The 1896 Olympic Games was in the Mediterranean Sea.
The 1900 Olympic Games swimming competition was held in the Seine River.
The 1904 Olympic Games was in a made-man lake (but the event was actually 100 yards, the only time ever in Olympic history).
By the 1908 Olympics, a 100 meter pool was constructed.
Time progressed over the years aided by better coaching, education and innovation in stroke and training methods, but technology has always been a big factor. Men donned full body suits with terrible drag until the 1940s and pool design vastly improved over the years. Then men donned full body suits to reduce drag. Wider lanes, overflow gutters and deeper pools reduced water turbulence.
By 2008 suit technology went haywire, beginning the age known as the Suitwars. Speedo launched the LZR, a polyurethane skin through which water didn’t flow. It also added compression and buoyancy. Every other suit manufacturer quickly followed, launching their version of what was essentially a rubberized body-suit boat. World Records dominoed rapidly, crescendoing at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, which some analysts called the “Plastic Games”.
January 2010 FINA banned non-textile suits.
The first 100 meter freestyle world record, 1:05.8, was set by Hungarian Zoltan Halmay in 1905.
Today the 100 meter freestyle world record is 46.91, owned by Cesar Cielo of Brazil. It was captured in one of these polyurethane technical suits.
Nathan Adrian won the 2012 Olympic Games in 47.52. Australia’s James Magnussen was .01 behind in 47.53. Despite analysts predictions that it would take years to break the tech-suited aided 46.91 world record, many now believe the record may fall before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.