According to the Canadian Red Cross' "History of Swimming and Stroke Development," ancient Middle Eastern and Greek civilizations started building strokes and rapid water-survival techniques in lakes, rivers and the open sea. Archeologists have found bas-relief (raised etchings) of an overarm stroke (like freestyle) in Egyptian tombs dating back to around 2,000 B.C. However, backstroke, which debuted in the 1900 Olympic games, was the latest stroke to enter the competitive swimming scene.
Although people have swum since ancient times, swimmer and swimming instructors have refined strokes significantly in the past 100 years. The modern Olympic Games, begun in Athens, Greece in 1896, created an interest in stroke and the definitions of each.
Since its first official competitive appearance at the 1900 Olympic Games, backstroke has only changed in small ways from its original form. FINA, Federation Internationale de Natation--an organization which sets all world swimming standards--notes that backstroke is one of the three swimming styles and the only regulated style swum on the back.
Backstroke Swimming Regulations
Backstroke swimmers have the advantage of breathing, but the disadvantage of not seeing where they're going and if they are veering off course. According to FINA regulations, backstroke is also the only competitive swimming style allowing swimmers to start in the pool instead of diving into the pool with a splash.
Arno Bieberstein of Germany, who won gold in backstroke in the 1908 Summer Olympics, the last win using an inverted breaststroke swum on the back. As of 2010, modern backstroke swimmers instead swim backstroke with a flutter kick and overarm pull.
Olympic American swimmer Adolph Kiefer dominated the stroke from 1935 to 1945 and was the first man in the world to swim 100 yards backstroke in less than one minute. His backstroke records stood for 15 years.
In 1922, American Sybil Bauer becomes the first woman to break an existing men's swimming world record. Bauer swam her 440-yard backstroke in 6:24.8, four seconds faster than the earlier record breaker. She set 23 world records in six years of competitive swimming before she died at 23 of cancer.
As the stroke evolved from its1900 Olympic debut, backstroke swimmers realized they could increase speeds with a streamlined dolphin kick underwater, similar to the butterfly kick. Swimmers smashed world records with this technique until 1989 when FINA, the swimming governing body, limited underwater dolphin kicking on the backstroke to only the first 15 meters from the starting wall.
Since the early 2000's, Australian backstrokers discovered that they could get more horizontal thrust by bending the arm slightly as it passes the body underwater; swimmers have generally adopted this style for speed.
Interesting Historical Facts
Ancient Assyrians depict a preliminary breaststroke in their stone carvings. The Hittites, the Minoans and other early civilizations left drawings of swimming and diving skills. The Bible also mentions early swimmers parting through the water in Ezekiel 47:5, as well as in Acts and Isaiah.