The Forum

Making waves: the history of swimming

Common to many cultures across the world, swimming appears on the surface to be a benign leisure activity. But in fact it has much to tell us about such things as the development of societies, our bodies and minds, and our relationship to our ancestors and the natural world.

For the Ancient Greeks and Romans, swimming was essential for instilling discipline, as a necessary skill for warriors, and to promote wellbeing. In West Africa where water had spiritual significance, communities there placed great importance on learning to swim from an early age. Their aquatic skills surprised the early colonialists, who then targeted divers to help them plunder shipwrecks when they were trafficked to the New World. Today however African American children are almost six times more likely to drown than their white counterparts as a consequence of historic racial segregation, according to research by the US Centers for Disease Control.

Rajan Datar is joined Professor Kevin Dawson from the University of California Merced, author of Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Cultures in the African Diaspora; Mikael Rosén, swimmer, coach and author of Open Water: The History and Technique of Swimming; journalist Howard Means, author of Splash!: Ten Thousand Years of Swimming and writer Bonnie Tsui whose book Why we Swim was published in 2020.

Produced by Fiona Clampin for the BBC World Service.

[Photo: Young boys swim together at an inter-racial camp circa 1948 in New York, New York. Credit: Irving Haberman/IH Images/Getty Images]

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