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Sunday, 8 February 2009

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Swimming not a sport at first, but a life saver

SWIMMING: Most animals are born swimmers, but man has to learn to swim. He possibly did so in early times by watching animals in water; and his most primitive style was thus the `dog paddle' stroke.

Ancient monuments and records uncovered by archaeologists depict him moving along or beneath the water. Roman documents and the Bible testify to the early existence of swimming.

Obviously, swimming at first was not a sport, but a life saver and part of welfare. In Egyptian writing, the sign for 'swim' showed a man's head and one arm forward and the other back, a position anticipating the 'crawl' stroke. There is also the well-known Greek legend of young Leander, who fell in love with beautiful Hero, priestess of Aphrodite. As such, she could not marry, and the two lovers had to meet secretly. They were separated by the waters of Hellespont (later, the (Dradanelles); and every night, Leander swam across to spend a few hours with his lady love who guided him to show with a lamp.

One night, when a storm put out the light, Leander lost his bearings and was drowned. When Hero eventually saw his body floating in the surf, she was so heart broken that she also threw herself into the Hellespont.

Through the centuries, many doubted the possibility of Leander's alleged achievement of swimming across such a long distance. However, in the 19th Century, Lord Byron, on his visit to the Dradanelles, in 1810, decided to test the feasibility of such a swim. Lieutenant Ekenhead joined him in the adventure.

They succeeded on May 3, and the same day, proud of his achievement and in great exhilaration, he penned the three verses, which appear in his writings as 'Written after swimming from Sestos to Abydos'. He actually wrote then six days after the event, but with typical poetic licence, alaimed they had been written immediately after the swim. Romans were renowned for their mastery of the water. The Hebrews had mastered the art of swimming, and used it in war and peace. The Prophet Issiah employed a graphic picture of a swimmer's powerful arm stroke. He could not have done so without assuming that his listeners were acquainted with it, and hence immediately frasped the meaning of the metaphor.

Bibilical reference

There is other evidence from the New Testament. St. John's Gospel (Chapter 21) contains the story of how Peter, while fishing with fiends, on the lake of Tiberias, saw Christ manifesting himself on the shore. He jumped into the water and swam the 100 yards or so that separated their boat from land.

The first book on swimming is attributed to a German professor of languages, Nicolaus Wynman, who published in Latin, in 1538, a volume in the then popular dialogue form. He used the exotic title "The Driver" or a dialogue concerning the 'Art of Swimming', both pleasant and joyful to read. Scandinavian people were also adept at Swimming. The seventh or eighth century Anglo-Saxon epic poem 'Beowful' describes its hero swimming in the sea, killing sea monsters with his sword. The first book on swimming in England came from Everard Digby, a Master of Arts at Cambridge University. Written in 1587, in Latin, it contained a weird assortment of woodcuts. In 1595, it was translated into English; and its popularity was such that numerous writers copied it in toto, and almost literally. Europe's Dark Ages took the joy out of aquatic sports. Sport in general was discredited, and anything pertaining to the body held in contempt. But most of all, diseases especially the epidemics that decimated the population of Europe in frightening measure, were though to be spread by the water. Yet, the nobility stayed with swimming, for it was considered that its skill and art were part of the true gentleman.

Swimming revived

Only the 19th Century saw a revival of swimming. The opening of the first public baths at Liverpool in 1828 was soon emulated everywhere. London is credited with being the first to introduce swimming competitions; and in 1837, the city owned six pools. The contests were then supervised by the National Swimming Society.

Swimming clubs were established only in the 1860's. In 1875, Captain Mathew Webb became the first person to swim the English channel, from Dover to Calais. He did it in 21 hours, 45 minutes - a feat caused a worldwide sensation.

With rivalry on between several clubs, coaches everywhere began experimenting to devise a faster style.

That is how, eventually, the Breast Stroke was replaced by the side stroke (crawl). Bets and cash prizes added to the excitement of swimming, but brought unruliness into the sport.

The Amateur Swimming Association, established in 1886, outlawed betting of any kind within three years of its formation.

The reborn past time probably achieved its greatest impetus from the first mix modern Olympic Games in 1896. Thereafter, swimming and aquatic sports have been an integral part of practically every world-level sports meet.

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