50 Days Out From Rio: A Look At The History of the Men’s Olympic 50 Free

Today marks 50 days from the start of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. So to commemorate, we’re looking back at every men’s medalist in the 50 freestyle throughout Olympic history.

Olympic Swimming Roots – In Yards???

Metric system enthusiasts beware! For as much heat as the United States high school and college systems take for competing mainly in short course yards, the first Olympic 50 free in modern history actually took place in a yards format.

That was in ’04 – not 2004, but 1904, when St. Louis hosted the Games. It was just the third Summer Olympic Games of the modern era, and all races were swum in yards, after the 1896 (hosted in Athens) and 1900 (hosted in Paris) versions both took place in meters.

The 1904 Games were the first to feature the 50 free, which saw the U.S. stack the 6-person final with 5 Americans, only for Hungary’s Zoltan Halmay to pick up the win in 28.0 seconds. Scott Leary and Charles Daniels claimed the other two medals for the home nation.

Back to the Future

Matt Biondi and Tom Jager, the start in Pleasantville Effect. Both are former world record holders in the long course meters 50 freestyle and NCAA Champions (Photo Credit: Mike Lewis)

Matt Biondi and Tom Jager renewed their rivalry at the 2012 Tiburon Sprint Challenge (Photo Credit: Mike Lewis)

The sprintiest of events then went absent for more than 80 years, not resurfacing until the distant future: 1988, when technology had advanced enough to puff up human hair-dos to their extreme limits, and Marty McFly was already testing out means of time travel.

The first time the event was taken back out of cold storage was at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. Avenging their nation’s loss from 84 years ago, Americans Matt Biondi and Tom Jager crushed the field for a gold/silver sweep.

The two had been trading the world record back and forth since 1985, but just four months before the Olympics, South Africa’s Peter Williams stole the record from both at a meet in Indianapolis. But in Seoul, Biondi broke the world record with a 22.14 and Jager was 22.36.

Gennadiy Prigoda of the Soviet Union (’80s, remember?) was a distant third in 22.71.

Popov’s Reign


Alexander Popov

By 1992, the Soviet Union had broken up, but that didn’t stop Alexander Popov from putting together one of the most impressive sprinting dynasties in Olympic history. At age 21, Popov won Olympic gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Competing for the Unified Team (made up of displaced members of 12 of the former Soviet Republics), Popov went 21.91 to beat both Biondi (22.09 for silver) and Jager (22.30 for bronze).

Then in 1996, Popov was back this time beating American youngster Gary Hall Jr. and Brazil’s Fernando Scherer with a 22.13.

Popov would also win the 100 free in both 1992 and 1996, becoming the first man to sweep two events over two Olympics since Johnny Weissmuller in the 1920s.

The 2000s: Gary Hall Jr Takes The Throne

Gary Hall Jr. (right) has found a new partner for the weekend, as apparently Dave didn't get an invite. See here with American relay anchor extraordinnaire Jason Lezak at the Swimming through the Decades panel.

Gary Hall Jr. (right) joined fellow Olympic icon Jason Lezak (left) at the Swimming through the Decades panel in 2012.

In 2000, Popov finally broke the world record (which had stood a full decade under Jager) with a 21.64 at Russian Olympic Trials. But a poor race at the Sydney Olympics allowed for the rise of three hugely memorable Olympic figures.

Americans Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin tied for gold in 21.98. Hall, of course, is known as one of swimming’s most colorful personalities, and Ervin took almost a decade off after his Olympic gold only to return to the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 in an inspiring comeback at age 31. He’s still competing for another Olympic berth in just a few weeks.

Bronze went to Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands in 22.03. Van den Hoogenband – known as The Flying Dutchman – is still one of the most successful swimmers in Dutch history, and won the 100 and 200 frees at those 2000 Games.

2004 saw Hall Jr. take full possession of gold in Ervin’s absence. Hall was 21.93 in Athens to touchout Croatia’s Duje Draganja (21.94) in thrilling fashion. Meanwhile South African star Roland Schoeman was third in 22.02.

Super Suits

Cesar Cielo, 50 butterfly gold and celebration, 2010 Pan Pacific Championships (Photo Credit: Tim Binning, theswimpicutres)

Cesar Cielo won Olympic gold and eventually set the world record in the late-2000s. (Photo Credit: Tim Binning, theswimpicutres)

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are still remembered as the media height of the super-suit era, with buoyant, rubberized full-body swimsuits pushing times to absurd extremes – particularly in the sprint freestyles.

The world record – which had stood 8 years after Popov – suddenly fell four times within two months. Australia’s Eamon Sullivan and France’s Alain Bernard were the two culprits, slowly inching the record down to 21.28.

At the Olympics, though, it was Brazilian star Cesar Cielo who took the gold in 21.30. Cielo would ultimately take the world record down to 20.91 a year later. That mark is still untouched today.

France’s Amaury Leveaux was 21.45 for silver, and Bernard took bronze in 21.49.

2012: Revenge of the French

Florent Manaudou - 50 butterfly World Champion - 2015 World Championships (courtesy of Tim Binning, theswimpictures.com)

Florent Manaudou 2012 Olympic champ looking for a repeat in Rio. (courtesy of Tim Binning, theswimpictures.com)

That brings us to the last Olympic cycle, in which France avenged its loss to Cielo with Olympic gold. It was Florent Manaudou (still perhaps the favorite to win again in Rio) who beat Cielo, going 21.34. American Cullen Jones was 21.54 for silver, and Cielo snuck out the bronze in 21.59.

Further back in the field were ghosts of sprinting past: Ervin in 5th, Schoeman in 6th and Sullivan in 8th.

2016: The Future Is Here

In just 50 days, the Olympics will return, and shortly after that, we’ll see just the 9th Olympic 50 free title handed out on the men’s side.

So far, we’ve seen one swimmer repeat as Olympic champ in each decade that’s been possible in the 50. Popov did it in ’92 and ’96, and Hall Jr. did so in ’00 and ’04.

Manaudou is the favorite after blowing out the field at World Champs last summer. But the next big things from most of the major historic sprint free powerhouses will have their own say: American Nathan Adrian, Brazil’s Bruno Fratus and Australia’s Cam McEvoy.

The current season’s world rankings are below. With just 50 days to go, the next chapter in the men’s 50 free story is on the cusp of being written:

2015-2016 LCM Men 50 Free

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On the top
4 years ago

Cool article!

On the Men’s events at Rio, would Manaudou be the most heavily favoured to win an individual event? Probably second behind Peaty in the 100 Breast.

Fratus is the only one I could see dethroning him.

Reply to  On the top
4 years ago

I think that would be Katie Ledecky in the 400 and 800 free. If you are talking about men, maybe.

Irish Ringer
Reply to  On the top
4 years ago

I don’t think so and that’s no slight to Florent, but in that short of a race any mistake can cost you the race. I agree the closest thing to a sure win is Ledecky. She’s several seconds ahead of her competitors.

Reply to  Irish Ringer
4 years ago

800 free 7.4 seconds. Non tapered.

Reply to  Irish Ringer
4 years ago

And C1, and SS, and KH, and …

Reply to  On the top
4 years ago

Agreed – great article!

samuel huntington
4 years ago

I see Manaudou going 21.1 or 21.0. I don’t think anyone can match that so he will be the big favorite

Reply to  samuel huntington
4 years ago

Nathan Adrian goes 21.2 at trials I think. And gets silver at Rio at least. I could see Adrian beating him though.

Reply to  SwimmerFoxJet
4 years ago

me too

Reply to  SwimmerFoxJet
4 years ago

I think Dressel will get there first.
Adrian may beat Manaoudou for silver, though.

Reply to  Smoothswimmer
4 years ago

i see Manaudou third actually with a Big upset

4 years ago

Possibly, I would be surprised. But nothing impossible.

Reply to  Smoothswimmer
4 years ago

Dressel? I think Manaoudou beats him, he may even beat Adrian.

samuel huntington
4 years ago

I see

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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