A Brief History of Women’s Participation In Olympic Swimming

In August 2023, World Aquatics announced the Olympic qualifying procedures for the Paris 2024 Games. Among swimmers who will achieve the Olympic Qualifying Time (OQT, “A” cut), the Olympic Consideration Time (OCT, “B” cut), the relay-only swimmers and universality places, it is expected that World Aquatics will fulfill the total quota of 852 athletes in pool swimming.

This means that we will see the lowest number of swimmers in the Olympics since 1996 in Atlanta, when 762 athletes competed at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. The overall athlete quota for Paris has been reduced from 11,000 to 10,500, which also means we will have the lowest number of athletes since 1996 (10,339).

It is also interesting to analyze the participation of female swimmers over the years. One of the recommendations of the 2020 Olympic Agenda proposed the IOC “work with the International Federations to achieve 50 percent female participation in the Olympic Games and to stimulate women’s participation and involvement in sport by creating more participation opportunities at the Olympic Games.”

Women’s participation in Olympic swimming since 1912

Year Women Men Total % Women
1912 27 93 120 22.5%
1920 24 92 116 20.7%
1924 51 118 169 30.2%
1928 72 110 182 39.6%
1932 44 84 128 34.4%
1936 94 154 248 37.9%
1948 88 161 249 35.3%
1952 118 201 319 37.0%
1956 99 136 235 42.1%
1960 144 236 380 37.9%
1964 162 243 405 40.0%
1968 204 264 468 43.6%
1972 245 287 532 46.1%
1976 208 263 471 44.2%
1980 143 190 333 42.9%
1984 186 308 494 37.7%
1988 252 381 633 39.8%
1992 256 385 641 39.9%
1996 345 417 762 45.3%
2000 396 558 954 41.5%
2004 393 544 937 41.9%
2008 433 547 980 44.2%
2012 429 458 887 48.4%
2016 414 483 897 46.2%
2021 398 477 875 45.5%

Women’s participation at the Olympic Games has been steadily increasing, and it is no different in swimming. The first time swimming events were included in the Olympics was in 1912, in Stockholm.

While women had competed at the Olympics from 1900 to 1908, this was the first time that women were admitted to the Olympic Program in one of the “major” sports on the program. In Stockholm, there were two women’s events: 100 freestyle and 4×100 freestyle. Twenty-seven women competed, 22.5% of the overall swimmers.

In 1972, the percentage of women in swimming reached 46.1%, the highest until 2012. At that time, there were 15 men’s events and 14 women’s events — the 4×200 freestyle was not contested by women. It was not until 1996 that women and men could swim the same number of events.

But it was only in 2021, in Tokyo, that male and female swimmers could swim the same events, with the addition of the men’s 800 freestyle and the women’s 1500 freestyle. It was expected that the percentage of men and women in Tokyo was equal, but it didn’t happen. There were 398 women (45.5%) and 477 men (54.5%).

This happened because, in some events, there were very few women competing. For example, 200 butterfly (16) and 400 IM (17). The lowest number among men was in the 1500 freestyle (28). This fact raised questions if the OQT in some women’s events were way too fast.

Let’s hope that, in Paris, the percentage of men and women in swimming will be equal, thus achieving the much-desired 50% equity stake.

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1 month ago

While swimming can improve… IOC should focus on solving some other participation issues, when we are talking about events which are done by women and men.

There is no plausible answer why Football has 16 teams for men and only 12 for women or why Boxing has much more men than women categories..

1 month ago

“…the 2020 Olympic Agenda proposed the IOC “work with the International Federations to achieve 50 percent female participation in the Olympic Games and to stimulate women’s participation and involvement in sport by creating more participation opportunities at the Olympic Games.”

If the competitive sport that measures success by the achievement of the standard of time;

one which generally has four forms of practice, (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and front crawl) and multiple distances in which to test these skills;

that not only gathers the best to perform in relay, but also mixes the genders for such performances;

Further, no matter the level of competition, several preliminary heats are conducted to narrow the field and eventually award a gold, silver and bronze… Read more »

Jimmy DeSnuts
1 month ago

less women want to swim competitively, its as simple as that. Thats why women’s swimming is less competitive, QT’s across the board from age group champs to olympic trials are easier, and we see Ledecky type dominance. I know I’ll get downvoted to hell for this but Ledecky=Finke. The difference is that Ledecky has no Hafnaoui, no Short, no Wiffen, no Romanchuk, no Paltrinieri. Ledecky is the representation of what womens swimming would look like if it was as competitive as mens. Of course, Ledecky is a distance swimmer, which is already less competitive (for both genders but especially women), but even in the sprints and middle distance the womens field is less competitive, which is why we see more… Read more »

Reply to  Jimmy DeSnuts
1 month ago

Receipts please

Babashoff - Woodhead - Evans - Ledecky
Reply to  Jimmy DeSnuts
1 month ago

Jake Paul called.

He wants his hot takes back.

Reply to  Jimmy DeSnuts
1 month ago

Only to say: Ledecky=Ledecky

Reply to  Jimmy DeSnuts
1 month ago

There are plenty of multi-event threats on the men’s side. Do you mean multi-stroke? I’d consider Dressel mutli-stroke, easily. Casas, Duncan Scott, MA, and Seto are other examples that come to mind.

1 month ago

That’s not exactly what she said and people DID lambast her for it.

I’m all for calling out people when they say something stupid but this has absolutely nothing to do with the article. We don’t need trolls of any nation throwing out random insults on every article.

Steve Nolan
1 month ago

Lily King, a swimmer the American commenters here notoriously love.

1 month ago

I don’t think it’ll ever be equal in swimming. There may be a year here or there where it’s parity or even more women but on the whole it just seems that a lot of countries invest more in men’s sport, and swimming in particular is somewhat niche and requires specific resources, so it’s not going to be a priority for countries that are trying to achieve more gender balance.

Also, this may be completely wrong but it just feels like there are way less women at a competitive level who swim the “hard” events, eg long distance, 400IM and 200 fly. There seems to be much less of a drop off for the men in those events.

Reply to  Sub13
1 month ago

Long distance is mostly the Katie Ledecky phenomenon where she is so good that the field looks way worse than it actually is

Knotty Buoy
1 month ago

For any serious student of Olympic swimming, I highly recommend “The Watermen” by Michael Loynd.

It’s the tale of Charles Daniels, an underdog story of the first American swimmer to win Olympic gold back in 1908 (back when there were no lane lines and lines on the bottom of the pool).

It’s also a story of the rebirth of the Olympic Games circa 1896-1908. We almost didn’t have an Olympics after that time.

And there’s no guarantee that the Olympics will continue — at least in the format we currently know.


1 month ago

Heard in a podcast that they used to take top 2 from each heat into the final? Is that true? (Times didn’t matter until the final).

Reply to  Joel
1 month ago

Could be. That’s similar to what they do in athletics

Fraser Thorpe
Reply to  Sub13
1 month ago

That rule has recently been changed for middle distance events

Reply to  Sub13
1 month ago

Update: Just had a quick look at a couple of old Olympics on Wikipedia and the 1936 Olympics says the fastest 2 from each heat automatically advanced, then the 2 fastest across all heats who missed top 2.

Athletics has a similar system right now that seems to be 3 fastest in each heat and then the 3 fastest overall who didn’t qualify yet.