Shouts From the Stands: Will Swimming Change …

by SwimSwam Contributors 19

March 11th, 2019 Industry

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Australian swimmer, swim coach and journalist Brad Cooper. 

Long before I swam at the Olympics (Munich 1972) or had my memoir (The Finest Gold) accepted by an international publisher, it concerned me that swimming might never become a mass spectator sport like the various ball games played across the globe.

I still suspect our sport’s event format is too clinical for that sort of reach. Compared to its track athletics equivalents, swimming races can still seem little more than simultaneously conducted individual trials. In track events, for instance, competitors can be seen running in circles, changing lanes, sometimes starting one behind the other, leaping hurdles, and using a pace setter.

Even as a naive but inquisitive 10 year old, I’d heard Olympic swimming events once featured obstacle races. How cool, I thought, while wondering why they were eventually scrapped. In its long Olympic history, swimming has experienced just one event change that could perhaps be termed dramatic – the addition of a completely new stroke, butterfly. And that was nearly three quarters of a century back. Since then, there have been a handful of technical rule tweaks and concessions to advances in equipment technology, but little more.

The recent excitement about emerging “swimmer-friendly” professional competitive jurisdictions (e.g. the ISL) risks major disappointment if we don’t accept that new events may have to be added to interest for financial sponsors beyond a tentative gesture. Sponsorships aren’t subsidies. Sponsors want returns. There is only so much initial “goodwill” funding if the marketing can’t pull in new screen viewers.

These are my own attempts at innovation. I would like to hear others too!

(1) Allow Individual Medley swimmers to choose their own stroke order. Can you imagine a freestyler chasing down a breaststroker for the entire last lap?
(2) Allow run-up starts in sprint events. Many athletic events allow a run-up for “ballistic enhancement”, including the long jump, so why not a swimming sprint event? Modern plastics technology could easily provide moveable lightweight, non-slip “take off” ramps.
(3) Allow 1500m swimmers to change lanes after the first 200m. The sight of long distance swimmers “migrating” across the pool would introduce gamesmanship and increase spectator speculation. To accommodate this, swimmers would “circle” their lane (as they do for 99.9% of all the time they spend in the pool – in training) and obey some minor but strict “traffic” rules, e.g., switching lanes only at the ends during the tumble, crossing only by pushing off beneath the adjacent lane rope, and emerging in the next lane without impeding that lane’s incumbent swimmer. Swimmers, of course, would have to finish the race in their own lanes. The 1500m could well become the most awaited event on the swim program.
(4) Underwater races. These would be conducted with the highest level of medical consultation. But because most Olympic 50 m freestylers seem able to compete without a breath, it seems reasonable that a 50m underwater race would be acceptable.
(5) Allow dive starts for backstrokers. Backstroke has always unfairly been the “poor cousin” of race starts. Why fiddle about with unsightly and sometimes malfunctioning strap contraptions designed to compensate for this start disadvantage. Any competent 8 year old swimmer can easily dive in and emerge on their back.
(6) Obstacle races. Once again, modern plastics technology could provide lightweight drop-in lift-out props of several meters in length involving both underwater swimming and above water running/climbing.
(7) Include a fins race. Movement-assisting technology has always been part of other sports held in “difficult” media (e.g., snow skiing, ice skating). Why should it be any less natural for swimmers to compete with “enabling” equipment?

Yours in swimming, Brad Cooper.

About Brad Cooper

Australian swimmer Brad Cooper was a member of the Australian Olympic Team at the 1972 Games in Munich, Germany. At the same Games where American Mark Spitz drew the eyes of the world when he set a record with 7 gold medals and where Australian Shane Gould won 5 medals of her own, Cooper won the 400 free and set the Olympic Record. That gold came after American Rick DeMont was disqualified after testing positive following the race due to an administrative error involving his medical disclosure forms.

He retired after the 1974 Olympic Games, going on to a career as a swim coach and journalist.

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Our sport is all or nothing with the rules as well; it’s a DQ or your fine. Why not add time pentilties for one hand touches or false starts. That way the swim at least counts for something and might still score points in duel meet situations.

Human Ambition

Adding a second per raced 100 is interesting. It works in biathlon. Mesmerizes TV audience.

Human Ambition

I love the brainstorming Brad. As I recall in my upcoming book (June 4, Chronicle Books) one of the first Olympic events were obstacle swimming in Paris 1900. The swimmers climbed over boats in Seine and dove under others (with prominent spectators in). Under water swimming already exist in fin swimming and is no great crowd sport. It was also a reason of the 15 m kicking rule because butterfly and backstroke was about to merge into one stroke, which might have jeopardized the Olympic status. (8) I can imagine a decathlon. Five events in three hours on day one and five more on day two. Last event a cross country skiing influenced hunting start in open water. Let a… Read more »


How about a heptathlon? 1500, 400IM, 50 Free and a 100 of each stroke.

Human Ambition

FINA points on that. Order decided on race day. And the last swimmer in each event is removed and cannot continue the heptatlon. .


This would be excellent. would really allow some swimmers to display there wide range of skill, and highlight just how difficult it is to be strong in all strokes and distances. I’m having difficulty visualizing the “changing lanes in the distance free”. Is the purpose here to incorporate drafting and strategy into the event like open water swimming but in a more spectator friendly arena? As an official I’m practically nauseated thinking about how we would keep track of it during long races where swimmers are being lapped! As a triathlete I like the idea of a “mixed medium” race, perhaps the swimmer has to get out of the pool every 200 and run a distance out and back or… Read more »


I think the only idea I like is the 1500m open-lane concept. However, I’d adjust it like this: The 1500m stays a pool swim with swimmers in their own lanes for the first 200. The rule change would be this: remove all the lane ropes before the start of the race, allowing swimmers to swim wherever they want after the first 200. The contact and interference rules would have to be as strict or stricter than in OWS: swimmers cannot impede strokes or turns, cannot grab others, cannot push off the bottom, and cannot corral swimmers into a wall or block their progress. Swimmers would still have to touch all turn walls (as they do now with their feet during… Read more »

steve scott

Invite another stroke or two….backstroke with a dolphin kick or corkscrew or something..

steve scott

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