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2018.09.17 - When did humans start to swim?

When did humans start to swim?

Many people think that swimming is a modern habit and earlier in history people couldn’t really swim for some reason. More and more historical sources say that the opposite of this is true, and swimming was one of the basic human skills way back in time.


"Those uneducated people who can neither swim nor read or write don’t get appointed public officials" – said Plato. Not only ancient Greeks but Egyptians, Chinese, Germans and Hungarians swam in their everyday life. Stone Age cave paintings in southwest Egypt and Libya depict our swimming ancestors. Assyrian combat training included teaching the Assyrians how to swim – of which reliefs survived – and young people in Israel also had to learn the art of swimming. Herod (73 BC) made learning how to swim obligatory for every boy. There are even some relics in Egypt that show several swimming techniques (freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke), some of this can be found in Benihasan from the times of the 11th dynasty from 2000 BC. In the tombs of kings images of swimming can be found which leads us to the supposition that they knew the open armed backstroke besides freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, which is called double arm swimming today. In Japan learning swimming was an important part of training samurais. This was one of the noblemen’s skills. According to historical sources, the first known swimming contest was organised by Emperor Suigi in 6 BC in Japan. Body culture was peaking during the Zhou dynasty (11th-3rd centuries BC) in China. From this period there are notes of swimming through rivers. Obviously there were exceptions in that period too. For example Alexander the Great didn’t know how to swim. 


The dark Middle Ages

Swimming - and all of body culture - hit an all time low in the Middle Ages. Because of the spreading of the plague people blamed water, that’s why swimming and bathing faded from everyday life. Our ancestors were successful partly because of the fact that they could swim, since it happened many times that the enemy from Western Europe camped next to rivers, since they thought they were protected from that side, but the Hungarian light cavalry could swim through almost any river, so they could attack unexpectedly. 

The no swimming habit of the Middle Ages faded somewhere sooner - in the Renaissance - somewhere later. From the 17th century books which contained the technique of swimming and physical exercises were published all over Europe. They released the first book which covered the topic of how to save someone from drowning in 1741, which was written by the Dutch writer Jean Frédéric Bachstrom. While Bachstrom fought for swimming to be taught in schools, Maria Theresa forbade it in the Ratio Educationis. The turn was brought by the Napoleonic Wars. While in the army of Napoleon swimming was obligatory, in many countries it was forbidden to swim and bath in open water. In the Napoleonic Wars the number of drowned Habsburg soldiers was disastrously high. This opened the eyes of the anti-swimming party, this is why in the second half of 1810s they created wooden pools in Zagreb, Bratislava and Buda (near today’s Chain Bridge) and in Komárom. At first only soldiers could use it, later everyone was allowed to visit them.

In Hungary Count István Széchenyi played an important role in making swimming more popular, who swam in the Danube almost every day, moreover, he swam it through multiple times. The best known Hungarian swimmer from that time was Miklós Wesselényi. He made bathing and swimming in Lake Balaton popular. He swam through Lake Balaton between Füred and Tihany in 1836 right after the Anna Ball. The first famous long distance swimmer in Hungary was Kálmán Szekrényessy. He was trained as an army officer in a pool, and he proved his aptitude many times in different stations. He swam through the Bosporus at Constantinople and the Gulf of Suez in 1877.


Swimming as a sport

For a long period of time it wasn’t the main motivation to swim fast, but to swim long distances. For a long time chronicles wrote about swimming through rivers and lakes, and in the case of nations that lived by the sea about swimming through bays. The first competitions were held in rivers, lakes and bays. One of the biggest events in the history of swimming was when Matthew Webb swam through the English Channel from Calais to Dover in 21 hours and 45 minutes. The alleged distance was 34 kilometres, but since he actually swam in a zigzag he covered a total of 64 kilometres. He covered his body with a thick fat layer because the temperature was 16 degrees Celsius. According to reports, he did the whole distance in breaststroke style. From the second half of the 19th century federations were established that organised swimming competitions in most countries, and in 1908 the international swimming federation FINA was established.

Hajós Alfréd

From the first Olympic Games in 1896 swimming was always in the programme of the Olympics. Swimmers had swum in open water in the first three games but they organised the competition in pools since the London Olympics in 1908. The first Hungarian Olympic champion, Alfréd Hajós swam in Athens in the Bay of Zea, which had a water temperature as low as 11 degrees Celsius. He dabbed his body with wax, but the cold water made his limbs stiff, - he was "swimming for his life" as he writes it in his own book - in the end he became the champion of 100m and 1200m freestyle swimming, the "Hungarian dolphin" as the Greek papers called him.


Although women were allowed to visit at the Olympics from 1900 they couldn’t compete until 1912. From that year women could compete but they were simply tolerated back then. It was hard for them to swim too, since they had to wear a dress from their neck to their ankle which wasn’t even suitable for bathing, let alone swimming. If they could compete, they were only allowed to participate in the 100m freestyle and 4x100m relay. That time it was forbidden for them to do backstroke, since it was against the norms to show their bellies and breasts; this rule changed in 1924.