Which Olympics had the fastest times: the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? It’s actually a trick question.
In theory, the answer might seem obvious. The 2008 Olympics featured the full-body polyurethane super-suits while the 2020 Olympics happened following a global pandemic, and the latter only saw two broken individual world records in contrast to the former’s 14 broken individual world marks.
But on paper, more than 75% of the qualifying semifinals and finals times for the 2020 Olympics were faster than in 2008.
It’s safe to say that after a decade, textile suit times have caught up to the super-suit times of the late 2000s. At the 2020 Olympics, there were 19 total events where the semifinals qualifying times were faster than the previous Olympics. Since the super-suited 2008 Olympics, six events have consistently seen faster semi-finals qualifying times.
For the first time in Olympic history, a swimmer had to break a minute in order to qualify for the 2020 Olympic men’s 100 breast semi-finals. At the same time, these Olympics featured the first-ever sub-22 men’s 50 free qualifying time. The first sub-22 men’s 50 free time was swum in 1990 by Tom Jager, who hit 21.98 and 21.81 in the same day. The women’s 200 breast qualifying time saw the largest time drop. It took 2:24.27 to qualify in 2020, which is 2.31s faster than 2016’s qualifying time of 2:26.58.
More milestones a prospective Olympic swimming semi-finalist in 2020 needed to break during preliminaries include hitting sub-54 for the women’s 100 free, sub-1:07 for the women’s 100 breast, sub-2:10 for the men’s 200 breast, and sub-52 in the men’s 100 fly.
|Olympic Semifinals Qualifying Times Progression|
|Men’s 100 BK||53.77||53.99||54.36||54.62|
|Men’s 100 BR||59.68||1:00.26||1:00.57||1:00.71|
|Men’s 200 IM||1:58.15||1:59.77||2:00.28||2:00.57|
|Women’s 400 FR||4:08.27||4:08.34||4:09.08||4:09.72|
|Women’s 100 BR||1:06.96||1:07.22||1:07.85||1:08.37|
|Women’s 200 BR||2:24.27||2:26.58||2:26.84||2:27.28|
Olympic final qualifying times in 18 of 26 events were significantly faster in 2020 than previous Olympics. In 2020, a swimmer had to swim 47.82 to qualify for the men’s 100 free Olympic final. In 2008, it took 48.07 to make the final. Likewise, 1:45.71 was the qualifying men’s 200 free time, the first sub-1:46 Olympic qualifying time. On the women’s side, it took 24.53 to qualify for the 2016 Olympic final while 24.32 was needed for the 2020 Olympics. The women’s 800 free final qualifying time also dipped from 8:25.55 in 2016 all the way to 8:20.58 to qualify in 2020.
The men’s 100 breast qualifying time in 2020 was a swift 59.18, easily surpassing the 59.45 qualifying time for the 2016 Olympics, 59.78 for the 2012 Olympics, and 1:00.55 for the 2008 Olympics. The first swimmer to clear that 59.18 breaststroke mark was Brendan Hansen in 2006, hitting 59.13.
Looking at the Olympic finals qualifying times progression chart, seven women’s times have consistently gotten faster since the 2008 Olympics.
|Olympic Finals Qualifying Times Progression|
|Women’s 50 FR||24.32||24.53||24.71||24.72|
|Women’s 100 FR||53.11||53.53||53.86||54.10|
|Women’s 200 FR||1:56.58||1:56.63||1:57.57||1:58.00|
|Women’s 100 BK||59.30||59.35||59.82||1:00.19|
|Women’s 100 BR||1:06.59||1:06.73||1:07.48||1:08.23|
|Women’s 100 FL||57.19||57.51||57.79||58.39|
|Women’s 200 IM||2:10.59||2:10.87||2:10.93||2:12.18|
|Men’s 100 BR||59.18||59.45||59.78||1:00.55|
Peering into the times it took to earn an Olympic medal, more than half of the recorded 2020 times were faster than the previous Olympics. While six events have seen faster times to secure a bronze medal since 2008, both the men’s 200 fly and 400 IM bronze medal times have gotten slower at every Olympics since 2008.
The Tokyo 2020 men’s 400 IM event featured the fastest finals qualifying time in Olympic history, requiring a speedy 4:10.20 to qualify. However, in 2020 it took 4:10.38 to secure a bronze medal in contrast to 4:09.71 in 2016, 4:08.94 in 2012, and 4:08.09 in 2008 (more on that event later). Similarly, a 1:52.97 was required to earn bronze in the 2008 men’s 200 fly Olympic final whereas a 1:54.45 took the 2020 Olympic bronze.
In contrast, four women’s and two men’s bronze medal times have dropped at every single Olympics since 2008. Most notably, the women’s 100 fly Olympic final required a 55.72 to earn Olympic bronze while 57.25 secured bronze in 2008. The first sub-56 women’s 100 fly was recorded at the 2012 Olympics by Dana Vollmer (55.98).
|Olympic Third-Place Times Progression|
|Women’s 400 FR||4:01.08||4:01.92||4:03.01||4:03.52|
|Women’s 100 BK||58.05||58.76||58.83||59.34|
|Women’s 100 BR||1:05.54||1:05.69||1:06.46||1:07.34|
|Women’s 100 FL||55.72||56.63||56.94||57.25|
|Men’s 100 BK||52.19||52.40||52.97||53.18|
|Men’s 200 BR||2:07.13||2:07.70||2:08.29||2:08.94|
A number of winning times in 2020 were faster than in previous years, including Caeleb Dressel‘s 100 fly world record (49.45) and South African Tatjana Schoenmaker‘s 200 breast world record (2:18.95). Dressel’s 50/100 free winning times of 21.07/47.02 also easily overwhelmed the 2008 super-suited winning times of 21.30/47.21.
Aussie Emma McKeon put up some of the fastest women’s 50/100 free times in history en route a record seven Olympic medals earned in a single Olympics by a woman. Her 50 free winning time of 23.81 was two-tenths faster than the 24.05-24.07 winning times since 2008. Likewise, McKeon continued to improve the 100 free winning time to a 51.96. In 2008, it took 53.12 to take the Olympic title.
The only event where the winning time has gotten slower since 2008 was the men’s 400 IM. In 2008, Michael Phelps won with the current world record time of 4:03.84. In 2012, Ryan Lochte succeeded Phelps with a gold medal-worthy swim of 4:05.18. Japan’s Kosuke Hagino took the Olympic title at 4:06.05 while Chase Kalisz settled for silver in 4:06.75. While Kalisz successfully took the 2020 Olympic title following his 2017 World title and missing the 2019 World final, his winning time of 4:09.42 was more than three seconds slower than in 2016. Kalisz’s lifetime best in this event rests at 4:05.90 from the 2017 World Championships.
|Olympic Winning Times Progression|
|Women’s 100 FR||51.96||52.70||53.00||53.12|
|Men’s 400 IM||4:09.42||4:06.05||4:05.18||4:03.84|