Luxury hotels and apartments love to brag about the installation of an Olympic sized swimming pool, but very few of these pools actually meet the standard for ‘Olympic sized.’
Standards for Olympic swimming pools are set by FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports at the Olympics and other competitions around the world.
What do the rules say about the size of an Olympic pool?
There is one fixed size for Olympic swimming pools: the length must be 50 meters. To be precise, the pool must be 50.000 meters in length when all timing equipment is installed (rule FR 2.1.1). That is about 164 feet long.
While FINA rules allow different widths for sanctioned competition, a pool for swimming at the Olympic Games must be 25.00 meters wide – meaning a pool of 10 lanes that are each 2.5 meters wide.
While only 8 swimmers participate in each event at the Olympic Games, every Olympics since the Barcelona 1992 Games have used a 10 lane pool. The outside lanes are left empty to try and neutralize any disadvantage of waves bouncing back off the side walls. The Jasmil Indoor Swimming Pool at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games was the last Olympic pool that was only 8 lanes wide.
Olympic swimming rules do allow some flexibility in depth. There is a minimum depth of 2 meters (6.56 feet), but recommends 3 meters (9.84 feet) of depth in order to allow the pools to be used for other disciplines, like synchronized swimming.
Have Olympic Swimming Pools Always Been This Size?
Olympic swimming pools, and thus the definition of an “Olympic-sized pool,” has changed throughout history. Besides the change from an 8-lane pool to a 10-lane pool in the 1990s, the most important dimension, the 50-meter length, has changed too.
The 1924 Olympic Games in Paris featured swimming at the Piscine des Tourelles, which was the first ever Olympic pool that adhered to the modern length of 50 meters.
At the 1908, 1912, and 1920 Olympic Games, specially-made 100 meter long swimming pools were used. The pools were ‘open,’ meaning that there were no lane markers to divide the pool per competitor. At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the Olympics used the first pool, which was a 100-meter course constructed inside of the events main track & field venue.
Prior to 1908, swimming competitions were all held in open water. At the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, swimming was held in Forest Park and races were measured in yards distances. That was the only Olympic Games that measured swimming races in yards. In 1900, the swimming venues were held in the River Seine. At the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, the first modern Olympic Games, swimming was held in the Bay of Zea. There were 13 participants from 4 countries (Hungary, Greece, Australia, and the United States, which didn’t win any medals).
What other sizes do pools come in?
Modern swimming competes generally in pools of three lengths: 50 meters, 25 meters, and 25 yards. Records are separated by the length of the pool, because times are generally faster in shorter pools (even when the total distance of the race is the same). That is because swimmers receive a boost when they push off the wall. So swimming 200 meters in a 25 meter pool will be faster than swimming 200 meters in a 50 meter pool.
Many international competitions, including the International Swimming League and the World Short Course Championships, compete in pools that are 25 meters long. In the United States, most school and neighborhood swimming leagues swim in pools that are 25 yards long. Most high school state championship meets and almost ever NCAA Championship meet (aside from 2000 and 2004) have been held in pools that are 25 yards long. Many competition pools can be divided into 50 meter, 25 meter, or 25 yard lengths with the use of movable bulkheads.
Throughout history, a number of different pool lengths have been used in competition. Some are 33 1/3 meters or yards in length, with three lengths adding up to the traditional 100 yard or 100 meters.
At some points in history, pools were built 50 yards or 55 yards long to meet 100 yard or 110/220/440 yard races. There are 20 meter or 20 yard racing pools around too. While these off-length pools are rarely used in competition anymore, many still exist, often as part of private fitness clubs where the exact length of the pool isn’t as important.
Sometimes things were tricky – races would actually be ended in the middle of the pool, rather than at a wall, in order to swim, say, a 100 meter race in a 55 yard pool.
Yards pools don’t just exist in the United States, either. Remember that much of the world used to measure in yards, so there are yards pools still in existence in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia.
Other aquatic sports, like diving, water polo, and synchronized swimming, have different criteria for size.
Is Your Pool an Olympic-Sized Pool?
Maybe! Ask management if the pool is 50 meters long. In terms of measurements, that is the most important to determine if your pool is Olympic-sized. 50 meters is about half the length of a standard-sized football field. An Olympic-sized pool should be about 70 steps long.
Even if it is 50 meters long, it is unlikely that any pool in a hotel, general fitness club, apartment building, or neighborhood meets the full definition of “Olympic-sized.” There are very few pools in the world that meet this definition, and most of them are attached to large universities or special sports centers. These days, many pools for major international competitions are temporary, built inside of large arenas.
Because of the cost of building a pool that size, especially when it comes to the depth of the pool, it isn’t worth the cost for most non-competitive swimming enterprises to build a pool of this length.
Most trained swimmers prefer a minimum length of 25 yards in their lap pools. But it’s not about the size of your pool, it’s about how you use it! Pools of all shapes and sizes can be used for fun and fitness.