This article originally appeared in the 2022 Fall edition of SwimSwam Magazine. Subscribe here to the SwimSwam Magazine here.
During the 2022 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Brazilian superstar veteran Bruno Fratus set the 100th 21-point 50 freestyle of his career. This moment was highly anticipated, as he came to Budapest having clocked 97 swims under the 22-second barrier. He expected to swim his 100th 21-point in the final of the event, but it happened during a swim-off following the semifinals. It was anticlimactic, since he lost the semifinal to France’s Maxime Grousset and could not compete in the final to try for his fourth medal in the event at World Championships.
Anyway, it was a historical accomplishment. Cracking the 22-second barrier is not an easy feat, let alone doing it so many times. To put that in perspective, the next swimmer, Britain’s Ben Proud, has registered 71 21-point swims in his career.
The 50 freestyle is the fastest event in swimming. The champion of that event is considered the fastest swimmer in the world — just like the winner of the 100-meter dash is considered the fastest runner in the world. And the magical barrier in the 100-meter dash has been the 10-second.
So, which is harder: cracking the 22-second in the 50 freestyle or cracking the 10-second in the 100 dash?
Let’s take a look at the numbers.
How many men have broken these magical barriers?
Men have been running in the 9-second territory in the 100 dash long before the first swimmer cracked the 22-second barrier in the 50 free.
In 1968, American Jim Hines (also an NFL player) won the Olympic gold medal in Mexico in 9.95, becoming the first runner to officially break the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters.
It was not until 1990 that a swimmer would crack the 22-second in the men’s 50 freestyle. The first one was American Tom Jager, at the US Sprint in Nashville in a 21.98.
As of today (July 2022), there have been 165 men who have broken the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters, and 114 swimmers under the 22-second barrier in the 50 freestyle. This seems logical: After all, there were runners into the 10-second territory long before swimmers into the 21-second territory.
But then there is this interesting statistic: Swimmers have registered 1,218 21-point swims, and runners have set 1,124 9-point performances. This means that a given swimmer, on average, has been able to crack this magical barrier more often than a runner.
Actually, over the last years, swimmers have indeed achieved the feat more frequently than runners. By 2021, 33 swimmers had broken the 22-second in the 50 freestyle 134 times. By the same year, 24 runners had broken the 10-second in the 100-meter dash 82 times.
In other words, the 10-second barrier was broken by runners more than 20 years before swimmers could break the 22-second, but swimmers increased their speed over the years more than runners. That is why a 21-point swim is more frequent than a 9-point run.
The kings of consistency
And what about specific runners and swimmers? Is there any runner who has broken the 10-second barrier 100 times, just like Bruno Fratus did in swimming?
Actually, there isn’t. Jamaican Asafa Powell is the one who is the closest to get to 100 sub-10s, as he has registered 97 9-point performances. Since he announced his retirement last year, we will probably have to wait a few years to witness a man getting to 100 sub-10s, as American Justin Gatlin (64), world record holder Jamaica Usain Bolt (52) and American Maurice Greene (51) are all retired. Among active runners, Mike Rodgers leads the pack with 46 9-point performances.
On the other hand, of the top eight swimmers in the 50 free, only Cesar Cielo has announced his retirement, and most of them have been registering sub-22 performances in 2021-22. Bruno Fratus with his 100 sub-22s leads the ranking. He is followed by the current world champion Ben Proud of Great Britain with 71 and Nathan Adrian from the United States with 65 (who has not officially retired, however, he has not competed on the elite level since June of 2021).
|Men’s 100-meter Dash||Men’s 50 Freestyle|
|Athlete||# Sub-10||Athlete||# Sub-22|
|Asafa Powell (JAM)||97||Bruno Fratus (BRA)||100|
|Justin Gatlin (USA)||64||Ben Proud (GBR)||71|
|Usain Bolt (JAM)||52||Nathan Adrian (USA)||65|
|Maurice Greene (USA)||51||Vladimir Morozov (RUS)||64|
|Mike Rodgers (USA)||46||Florent Manaudou (FRA)||62|
|Yohan Blake (JAM)||44||Cesar Cielo (BRA)||59|
|Tyson Gay (USA)||36||Michael Andrew (USA)||45|
|Akani Simbine (RSA)||31||Kristian Gkolomeev (GRE)||42|
|Nesta Carter (JAM)||29||Frederick Bousquet (FRA)||35|
|Ato Boldon (TRI)||28||Cullen Jones (USA)||30|
So, which is harder, a sub-10 in track or a sub-22 in swimming? There have been more men who have run in the 9-second territory, but swimmers have been able to produce more 21-point swims, especially in the last years.
Anyway, cracking these barriers does not necessarily win medals or titles, but doing so is a demonstration of speed, consistency and longevity. That’s why all the runners and swimmers mentioned here are recognized among the best sprinters of all time.
Off-topic but anyone else notice Dressel wearing a cast on his hand in a recent IG post with him?
There’s probably a point where the number of people or performances at each metric is similar, just not a round and pretty number. So maybe a similar number of people or performances have been under 22.33 in the 50 free and under 10.0 in the 100 dash? Or under 22.0 in the 50 free and under 9.90 in the 100 dash?
I’ve always wondered if the first human to break 20 seconds in the 50 Meter Free will have an equal footing in sports history with Roger Bannister’s 4min mile? Also, since CD’s future is now questionable, I’m wondering if it will happen soon or even in my lifetime?!
Beautiful collaboration with runran
It’s much harder to run sub 10 if you make the list again but removed anyone who has gotten a serious doping ban you’d see swimming has a lot more people left then track.
Has anyone ever got close to doing both? Swimming sub 22 and running sub 10?
I think Dressel would be the one most capable
Statistically speaking since most people who have ran sub 10 seconds have been historically from the Caribbean Jordan Crooks or Josh Liendo have the best chance. Dressel I would put 3rd or 4th
Except, the ones who ran sub 10 seconds (besides Bolt) were rather short individuals. And of the three, I believe Dressel is the shortest?
I think Dressel would also be the best swimmer who could score the winning goal in the World Cup.
No, I’d give that to Fratus all day
There’s not much difference in height between Liendo (1.92m) and Dressel (1.91m) and Crooks looks shorter than Proud (1.85m) in the photo below.
I super doubt it. (Esp b/c the article says: “As of today (July 2022), there have been 165 men who have broken the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters, and 114 swimmers under the 22-second barrier in the 50 freestyle.” so they’re both super elite groups as it is.)
Shift it to like sub24s for a 50m free and sub11s for a 100m dash and you’ll prolly find some folks. Miiiiiiiiiiiiight be a freak out there that can do a 23/10.5, but even then it seems iffy.
Usain Bolt could if he wanted to, but he’s not interested because it’s much harder to start celebrating 15 meters before the finish in swimming.
Outstanding article. This comparison always makes me think of the lack of a true sprint event for swimming(no not looking to add an event but hear me out).
Physiological a 50m freestyle is closer to a 200m sprint, if the 200m was in a straight line. in a 50m swimming event, top speed is achieved where, about halfway? Then you try to hold it. Same with a 200m. The 50-150m part is the fastest.
A 100m sprint you are literally at your peak speed at the end. No event in swimming can achieve that.
Who would be the 25m WR holder?
Definitely dressel would be the 25m wr holder. In swimming you are getting slower after the start.
On current form you’d have to pick Jordan Crooks to be the 25m WR holder
I generally agree with all of this. However, in running, peak speed generally happens around the 60-80m range, after which stored ATP runs out and glycolysis can’t sustain the same power. Even Usain Bolt, who sustained his speed better than his competitors, fell off in the last 20m ), though maybe because he liked to start celebrating before he finished 🙂
With swimming, building off of what Lord farquad said, swimmers are fast off of the dive and speed drops off throughout the 50 (with people like Fratus and Tony Ervin fading less than most). So in both the 50 free and 100m run, the best need to… Read more »
Schoeman at his best, Leveaux at his best, Cielo at his best, Nicholas at his best, Proud at his best, Manaudou at his best…in my mind those are the best guys at the start ever. However, all of them, to me, are considerable inferior to Dressel.
I don’t think anyone touches Dressel at his best in a 25m race…
Yeah, I realize that what I said could be interpreted as saying that there were people who historically had better starts than Dressel does now. What I was trying to say was that at different points pre-Dressel, the people winning the 25m may have been different than people winning the 50m.
Thanks, vaguely remember reading that Beijing Bolt would’ve beat 2009 Bolt if he hadn’t celebrated. What a legend
I find it interesting that on the track the 200 and 400 are significantly faster than their counterparts in the pool (50m and 100m) but then things turn decidedly towards swimming. The 800 is still faster than the 200, but it’s closer. But by the mile vs the 400 swimming is faster. And from there swimming moves away.
I wonder how much race conditions contribute to this? Swimming is generally very consistent and unaffected by weather (mostly indoor, controlled water temp, etc) whereas outdoor track tends to be more affected by wind and temperature.
Another contributing factor could be that the leap between 10 and 9 is larger than between 22 and 21 as a percentage of the end time and so the range between a 10.1 and 9.9 is inherently larger than 22.1 and 21.9
Conditions definitely play a role. There have been another 550 sub-10 second dashes that aren’t on the official record because there were wind aided. Asafa Powell has 8 of those, meaning he stopped the clock 105 times under 10. http://www.alltime-athletics.com/m100mno.htm
I can’t think of a male who might reach 100 times under 10. It needs to be someone with so much natural speed he can do it in a typical meet when not fully motivated, and also in heats of a championship. Christian Coleman had the wherabouts suspension and Fred Kerley didn’t switch to 100 until too late in his career. There’s a brash kid named Letsile Tebogo who has freakish ability… Read more »
And 11 seconds isn’t quite the same batter that it was for women. So many women are consistently running under 10.9 now, and SAFP and ETH now consistently running under 10.7