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Why are the individual and relay medleys swum so differently at the Olympics?

The individual and relay swimming medleys have very different stroke orders. Why is ... unclear.

Swimming - Olympics: Day 4 Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Since 1952 when the butterfly was defined as a separate stroke from the breaststroke, the orders of the strokes in the individual and relay swimming medleys have been the same at every Olympics. In the relay medley, the order goes backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly then freestyle. In the individual medley, the order goes butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke then freestyle.

The orders never change, but the logic behind them is a little fuzzy. Why is freestyle the only stroke that’s in the same place across both events?

The relay starts with the backstroke because it makes the most logistical sense. It is the only stroke that begins with the swimmers in the water, holding onto the wall. If the backstroke was in the middle of the relay, swimmers would have to contort their bodies in mid-air as they dove over their incoming teammate in order to position themselves to begin the stroke ... or else awkwardly let their teammate smash into them while waiting in the water.

From there, the relay goes in order of the relative speed of each stroke. The men’s world record for the 100-meter breaststroke (57.13 seconds) is well behind the world records for the butterfly (49.80 seconds) and freestyle (46.91 seconds).

It’s unclear why the individual medley begins with the butterfly, but a simple explanation could be because the stroke is easily the hardest of the four. Because one swimmer has to do all four disciplines, it makes sense to make him or her do the most taxing stroke while he or she has a surplus of energy.

In the book Swim to Win: Train Like a Champion, swimming coach Ed Nessel suggests that the IM actually used to be swum in the same order as the relay.

When all four strokes were incorporated in the late 1950s, the event was swum in the same order as the medley relay, with fly coming third ... Luckily, some logic (and a few kind thoughts) from the administrators of national and international swim competitions made the present order of strokes in the IM de rigueur.

If that’s the case, then the individual medley is simply the relay medley with the butterfly moved to the front, which explains why the breaststroke comes after the backstroke in the IM despite generally being considered a tougher discipline.

The hard version of the truth is difficult to track down. Just know that the order of the strokes between the two events is very different and there’s probably a good explanation somewhere.