You can’t have a world-class competition in any old pool.


Photo Credit: United States Air Force Academy

The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are less than two years away. Thanks to past superstars like 22-time medalist Michael Phelps, one of the most watched sports that year will likely be the 34 swimming events taking place that year. Undoubtedly, one record or another will be broken, but as participants are sweating over tenths and hundredths of a second, it does raise the question: what exactly is an Olympic swimming pool? What makes them so exact that such tiny fractions of a second actually count for something?

To begin with, the standards for an Olympic-size swimming pool are defined by FINA, the Fédération Internationale de Natation or International Swimming Federation, which was founded in 1908 and is now based in Lausanne, Switzerland.

FINA doesn’t mess around when it comes to establishing exacting standards. An Olympic pool measures 50 meters in length by 25 meters in width, or 164 feet 1 inches by 82 feet 0 inches. The tolerances for those measurements are extremely tight. A pool may absolutely not be smaller than those dimensions, but it can be 0.03 meters (1.18 inches) shorter, and each lane can be as much as 0.03 meters (1.18 inches) narrower than the specifications. When touch panels are installed for the purposes of making exact time measurements (the panel that a swimmer smacks at each end of the pool to record the time they finished a given lap), the length between panels has to follow the above tolerances. So modern Olympic pools are a smidge longer to accommodate those panels.

There is a lot more flexibility with the depth of Olympic pools: they have to be a minimum of 2 meters (6 feet 6.74 inches) deep, but a depth of as much as 3 meters is recommended. A 2 meter deep Olympic pool will hold 660,000 gallons of water, or 88,000 cubic feet.

Believe it or not, the above is actually a simplified run down of the specifications for Olympic-sized pools. The length and width are supposed to be defined at a specific depth below the surface of the pool, and even the color scheme and numbering of lanes (0 to 9, not 1 to 10) is defined.

But, it’s understandable to want such exact measurements, right? If a swimmer breaks a record, they should break it because they were the fastest, and not because someone was lazy with a measuring tape.

The next time you see a swimming competition, take a moment to appreciate not just the swimmers, but the amount of work that went into the swimming pool in which they’re competing.