How Tall Have Olympic Medalists Been Historically?

by SwimSwam 44

July 05th, 2024 Paris 2024, SwimmingStats

This article originally appeared in the 2024 Olympic Preview edition of SwimSwam Magazine, courtesy of author Daniel Takata. Subscribe to the SwimSwam Magazine here.

Take a look at the results of some swimming races of the last Olympic Games, and you will probably have little doubt that swimming is a sport for tall athletes.

According to the World Health Organization, “The expected average height of a healthy population should be 163cm (54) for women and 176.5cm (59) for men.” In fact, it would be very difficult finding Olympic medalists below those figures in 2016, which reinforces the fact that elite level swimmers are above average in terms of height.

It seems obvious. Height helps swimmers swim the fastest. Having a length advantage gives them more surface area with which to propel themselves forward. But this pattern varies according to the event, and it has been varying over the years.

In this article, data from the 1960-2021 Olympics are used, considering only pool swimming events; the marathon swimming event, introduced in 2008, is not considered.

Taller and taller

The following graph shows the average height of the Olympic swimming medalists in individual events, from 1960 until 2021. We have been watching tall swimmers dominate the sport for a long time. And the average height of medalists has increased with almost every Olympics.

Average height of Olympic swimming medalists in individual events, 1960-2021

For men, this average increased almost 10cm from 1960 (182.5cm, or 71.9 in.) until 2008 (192cm, 75.6 in.). For women, this increase has been 7cm–169cm (66 in.) to 176cm (69 in.).

The average height of an Olympic swimming medalist is way above the average height of an ordinary person. In the last Olympics, in Tokyo, this average was 189cm (6′2) for men, and 176cm (5′9) for women. That is more than 10cm (4 in.) above an average man or woman’s height.

The tallest ones to win a medal in Tokyo were France’s Florent Manaudou in men’s individual events (199cm or 6′6, silver in the 50 freestyle) and Australia’s Cate Campbell in women’s events (186 cm or 6′1, bronze in the 100 freestyle). The shortest ones were Japan’s Tomoru Honda (172 cm or 5′7, silver in the 200 butterfly) and United States’ Hali Flickinger (168cm or 56, bronze in the 200 butterfly and 400 IM). Honda is one of the shortest swimmers who has ever medaled in men’s events.

This is significant, since the tallest swimmers swam freestyle sprint events, and the shortest ones swam the grueling events like 200 fly and 400 IM. This is no coincidence when we analyze historical data.

Since the 50 freestyle was included in the Olympic program in 1988, only two male swimmers less than 190cm (6′3) tall have medaled: Gennadiy Prigoda from Soviet Union in 1988 (180cm or 5′10, bronze medal) and Bruno Fratus from Brazil in 2021 (187cm or 6′1, bronze medal). On the other hand, in the same period, most of the swimmers who have medaled in the men’s 200 butterfly are actually shorter than 190cm (6′3).

Since 1988, the highest averages on the men’s side are observed in the freestyle shortest events: 50m (195cm or 6′4), 100m (196cm or 6′5), and 200m (192cm or 6′3.5). We see the same pattern in the women’s freestyle events: the 50m (178cm or 5′10), 100m (177cm or 5′9), and 200m (179cm or 5′10) freestyle are the events with the tallest Olympic medalists on average.

On the other hand, we have the shortest averages in the 100 and 200 breast (185cm or 60) and 400 IM (186cm or 61) on the men’s side, and in the 200 fly (172cm or 57), 100 and 200 breast (173cm or 5′8), and 400 IM (172cm or 57) on the women’s side.

These numbers make sense, since 50, 100, and 200 free are very physical events, and the swimmers must be very strong and powerful. The tallest swimmers tend to have larger and longer hands and feet, and this is not only an advantage but also essential in those events.

In contrast, events like the 100 and 200 breast, 200 fly, and 400 IM, are more technique based. Especially breaststroke, a stroke with more emphasis through the middle of the hip, as opposed to the length of the body, is more necessary in freestyle and backstroke.

The tallest and the shortest swimmers

For the sake of curiosity, the table below shows the tallest and the shortest swimmers to win Olympic medals in individual events since 1960.

Tallest Olympic swimming medalists in individual men’s events (1960-2021)

Swimmer Height Olympics
Gustavo Borges (BRA) 203cm (6′8) 1992-2004
Matt Grevers (USA) 203cm (6′8) 2008-2012
Yannick Agnel (FRA) 202cm (6′7.5) 2012-2016
Arkady Vyatchanin (RUS) 202cm (6′7.5) 2004-2012
Amaury Leveaux (FRA) 202cm (6′7.5) 2004-2012

Tallest Olympic swimming medalists in individual women’s events (1960-2021)

Swimmer Height Olympics
Sylvia Poll (CRC) 192cm (6’3.5) 1988-1992
Claudia Poll (CRC) 191cm (6′3) 1996-2004
Missy Franklin (USA) 187cm (6′1.5) 2012-2016
Otylia Jedrzejczak (POL) 187cm (6′1.5) 2000-2012
Katrin Meissner (GER) 187cm (6′1.5) 1988-2000

Shortest Olympic swimming medalists in individual men’s events (1960-2021)

Swimmer Height Olympics
Brad Cooper (AUS) 160cm (53) 1972
Ricardo Prado (BRA) 168cm (56) 1980-1984
Tomomi Morita (JPN) 169cm (56.5) 2004-2008
Tsuyoshi Yamanaka (JPN) 171cm (57) 1956-1964
Kevin Berry (AUS) 172cm (57.5) 1960-1964
Tomoru Honda (JPN) 172cm (57.5) 2021

Shortest Olympic swimming medalists in individual women’s events (1960-2016)

Swimmer Height Olympics
Tineke Lagerberg (NED) 150cm (411) 1960
Marianne Heemskerk (NED) 152cm (411.5) 1960-1964
Satoko Tanaka (JPN) 158cm (52) 1960-1964
Michelle Ford (AUS) 159cm (52.5) 1976-1980
Kyoko Iwasaki (JPN) 159cm (52.5) 1992-1996

We saw the tallest podium in the men’s 100 freestyle at the 1992 Olympics: Alexander Popov (200cm or 6′6.5), Gustavo Borges (203cm or 6′8), and Stephan Caron (200cm or 6′6.5) combined for an average height of 201cm (6′7). Among women, the women’s 200 freestyle in 1996 had Claudia Poll (191cm or 6′3), Franziska van Almsick (181cm or 5′11), and Dagmar Hase (183cm or 6′0), average height of 185cm (6′0.5).

But is Olympic swimming only a sport for tall athletes? Not necessarily.

Japan’s Natsumi Hoshi, 164cm (54.5) tall, won bronze medals in the women’s 200 fly at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Americans Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett, Olympic champions in long distance events, were no taller than 167cm (55.5). On the men’s side, the great Ricardo Prado from Brazil, 168cm (56) tall, was a world champion and world record holder in the 400 IM in the 80s. Japan’s Tomomi Morita is 169cm (56.5) tall and won a bronze medal in the 100 back in 2004, the same event that saw Matt Grevers, 203cm (6′8) win Olympic medals in 2008 and 2012.

For sure, being tall is not enough for someone who wants to become an elite swimmer. Being short is not a deal-breaker either. It is true that, on average, an Olympic swimming medalist is taller than an ordinary person. But, as in any sport, there are exceptions. Maybe you don’t have to be the tallest person to win an Olympic medal. You will only know if you try. And if you put in the hard work, maybe you can become the next Janet Evans or Ricardo Prado.

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Human Ambition
17 days ago

Marathon Swimming gold medalist 2008 Maarten van der Weijden is/was listed as 202-203 cm or 6’8″.

18 days ago

German twins Bengt and Björn Zikarsky won a bronze medal with the 4x100m free relay in Atlanta. They’re 205cm and 207cm respectively. And it’s not exaggerated, as someone suggested swimmers regularly do. I swam with them, they’re huge.

Btw, please look at these conversions again. 190cm can’t be 6’1 and then in the next sentence 6’3. The conversions are all over the place and some are laughably wrong.

Last edited 18 days ago by FST
18 days ago

Most swimmers exaggerate their height. Phelps in reality is 6’3 Lochte is 6’1 and Dressel 6’2

Reply to  Sqimgod
18 days ago

Said the exact same thing , locate is maybe 6 ft and Dressel maybe 6’1 . Grevers is 6’6 not 6’8 maybe 6’7 in his prime for sure

Reply to  Sqimgod
4 days ago

I think they are just good at lengthening their spine, hip/back alignment etc. Good swimming technique does that. They also don’t have to worry about vertebrae compression being horizontal in the water. If you think about swimming does actually make you a little taller.

18 days ago

Brad Cooper is listed on Wikipedia as 5’3” 159lbs, thinking at least one of those is wrong and there’s no way he was 5’3”

18 days ago

Every time Schooling won he got shorter. By the time he won Olympic gold he was down to 5’ 6”.

18 days ago

Anyone know how tall Chris Guiliano is? He’s listed as 6’4 but looks more like Alexy’s 6.8

Reply to  John26
18 days ago

Alexy is probably a bit shorter than 6’8”

18 days ago

Gretchen & Jack have a good opportunity to add their names this year.

18 days ago

Swimmers heights are exaggerated a little bit , Dressel ain’t 6’3 and Phelps was 6’3 prime never 6’4 . I’d take an inch to inch and a half off every billed height

Reply to  Derp
18 days ago

What’s up with the downvotes lol I said a fact