How Did Marathon Swimming Get Into The Olympics?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

How did open water swimming get into the Olympic Games? It all started with a simple lunch gazing out over the horizon across the Indian Ocean.

In a scene that can be immortalized by a Hollywood movie, three passionate open water swimming officials initially mapped out a plan on a napkin over lunch.

Their idea – that came to fruition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and was beautifully executed in London – was presented to the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee in 1998.

It was later accepted as the optimal blueprint for the sport by the FINA Bureau and the International Olympic Committee in 2005.

The sport – and newly crowned Olympic champions like Ous Mellouli and Eva Risztov – can thank the vision and inspiration of Christopher Guesdon, Sid Cassidy and Dennis Miller.

The three men knew swimming in the Olympics had its roots in the open water. The swimming events were held in the Aegean Sea during the 1896 Athens Olympics and in the Seine River during the 1900 Paris Olympics. But that history is largely unknown by most sports fans.

Aussie Guesdon, the Fijian Miller and the American Cassidy figured out a clever, executable means to get FINA and the International Olympic Committee to embrace the sport rather than to dismiss it. Guesdon, considered the chief architect of the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim, massaged the concept with the help of Cassidy and Miller at the 1998 World Swimming Championships in Perth, Australia.

Guesdon drew a proposed course and competition outline on a napkin. A simple paper napkin.

Their idea was then presented to the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee in September 1998 in San Felice, Italy. After much internal discussion and debate, the innovative plan was accepted. While many traditionalists in the sport wanted an Olympic swim of at least 25 km in distance, Guesdon and the visionary committee members believed a shorter swim within a relatively small body of water where the athletes could be seen, photographed and filmed would more likely be acceptable to the influential International Olympic Committee members.

The model was later accepted as the optimal blueprint for the sport.

Guesdon, Cassidy and Miller knew, along with their FINA colleagues, that a 10 km race would attract a world-class (pool) swimmer and could be easily showcased on TV in a relatively inexpensive way in a rowing course – while capturing all the excitement and challenges of a more traditional, longer race.

Over the next 7 years, lobbying and planning took place while the sport continued to develop under the FINA auspices. FINA members eventually improved and advanced the competition model as initially proposed on a napkin in 1998.

Cassidy explains the history at last year’s Global Open Water Swimming Conference:

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