What Is That Whistling Noise During Olympic Swimming?

Every four years the Olympics comes back around, and it seems that every four years some of us become experts in some obscure sport that we may never have paid attention to before.

I have never once set foot on the curling ice, but I quickly become an expert when it comes time to watch them play during the winter Olympics.

Before long I find myself debating different strategies and techniques as if I’ve been a long-time fan.

Even the more mainstream sports find themselves with a higher level of exposure than ever before as they are featured on the world-wide Olympic stage.

According to researchers, a staggering 3 BILLION people tuned in to watch the Tokyo Olympics [source].

With numbers that high, even internationally known sports like tennis, track & field, and soccer will have more viewers than usual during the Olympic telecasts.

Swimming also gains quite a bit of popularity when the Olympics come around. People who barely know what the word “backstroke” means will find themselves cheering like mad when it comes time for the first leg of the Olympic 4×100 medley relay.

One of the things that often surprises those who are new to watching a swim meet is the various noises that can be heard before, after and even during a race. The swim arena is filled with whistles from judges, commands from announcers, and of course the noises from the coaches and crowds.

What is the whistling noise during Olympic swimming? That noise you hear is just good, old-fashioned encouragement! Sometimes it is the fans, but there’s a good chance that the noise you hear is the coaches cheering on their athletes.

It might be a horn, a whistle, a shout or even some kind of honking noise. More than likely, that same noise has been present during training so the athlete has been conditioned to listen for it. Just like in other sports, the coaches are encouraging their athletes to give their best performance.

Why Do They Whistle During Olympic Swimming?

Whistling is how many coaches communicate with their athletes during a race. They may be giving advice or even just encouragement as the race is underway.

Sometimes the whistles are combined with hand gestures that tell the swimmer to go faster, slow down or to relax. These gestures have been practiced often enough that the athlete can still receive the messages despite the confusion of the crowds inside an Olympic arena.

These noises have been present at swim meets for decades, but they were more noticeable at the most recent Olympic Games that took place during the pandemic.

Many venues were empty of spectators, so only officials, coaches, and competitors were present during the swimming competitions. Due to the lack of crowd noise, the signals from the coaches and teammates were more easily picked up by the broadcast microphones.

Can Swimmers Hear While Under Water?

Surprisingly, yes! Swimmers can hear quite well, even when their heads are completely submerged in water.

Many noises sound different underwater than they do in the open air due to the density of the atmosphere [source].

Even though specific noises like words might be muffled and tough to distinguish, loud and/or sharp noises like whistles or horns can certainly be heard under water.

You can bet that Olympic swimmers can hear and feel the roar of the crowds and the cheers of their coaches and teammates throughout their competitions.

Fans of synchronized swimming may be surprised to find out that the music that the athletes are performing to is not just being played over the arena speakers.

The same music is also being played through special under water speakers directly into the pool to make it easier for the swimmers to time their movements [source].

What Are the Whistles at The Start of A Swim Race?

Referees and starters will use a series of signals with their whistles in order to signal to the crowd and the athletes that a race is about to begin.

When a race is ready to proceed, the starter will give a series of short blasts on his whistle. Athletes have just a few seconds to make last minute adjustments.

When the starter gives one long blast on his whistle, the swimmers will either mount the starting blocks or jump into the water if it is a backstroke event. Next will come a command like: “Swimmers, take your marks”, at which point swimmers will get into starting position.

The starting gun will sound shortly thereafter and then it’s off to the races!

Why Are so Many People Walking on The Swim Deck During Races?

Those are the various officials who ensure that the race is fair. Various judges and timekeepers are present around the pool, each with their own set of responsibilities to watch for.  

  • Starting judges stand near the starting blocks to ensure a safe and fair start for all the swimmers.
  • Timekeepers are used when a venue doesn’t have an automated timing system and are tasked with providing the official times for the competitor in the assigned lane.
  • Additional timekeepers may be on hand to ensure that no athletes stay under water for more than 15 seconds.
  • Turn judges ensures that the swimmers follow the rules while turning and during the finish.
  • Stroke judges determine whether swimmers are following the technical rules for their specific strokes.
  • Finally, finish judges determine the order of finish.

These days, electronic mats present at the start and finish mean that some of the above officials are not technically needed. However, many times they may still be present to be a backup in case of equipment malfunction.

Brad Birky

Brad Birky is an endurance athlete and trained chef who has qualified for and completed the Boston Marathon as well as multiple Ironman distance triathlons

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