The men's 50-meter freestyle race has become one of the headlining Olympic swimming events since it debuted at the 1988 Seoul Games. Olympic pools are 50 meters in length, so the race is a basic sprint to the other side of the pool, using any stroke the swimmer chooses, most commonly the front crawl. As Greg Kehm writes in Olympic Swimming and Diving: Swimming And Diving (Great Moments in Olympic History), "The difference between first and third place is often just seven-tenths of a second, or less than a blink of an eye."
The original Olympic swimming venues were open waters such as oceans, rivers and lakes. The Games of the third Olympiad were held in St. Louis in 1904. A men's 50-yard freestyle race was held in an artificial lake in Forest Park. Zoltan Halmaj of Hungary won the initial version of this sprint, which measured 45.72 meters. Halmaj defeated American J. Scott Leary by a foot, but a U.S. judge declared Leary the winner. After a brawl ensued, it was decided to re-swim the race. After two false starts, Halmaj won by a full stroke.
The first Olympic pool appeared in the 1908 London Games, however, there men's 50-meter freestyle would not appear for another 80 years.
In the 1988 Seoul Games, American Matt Biondi equaled Mark Spitz as the second swimmer to win seven medals in one Olympiad. Biondi captured the first 50-meter gold in world-record time of 22.14 seconds.
Known as the Russian Rocket, Alexander Popov, is widely regarded as the greatest sprint freestyle swimmer of all time. Popov won the 1992 and 1996 gold, while also winning gold in the longer 100-meter freestyle.
American Gary Hall, Jr. captured the gold in 2000 and again in 2004. At age 29, Hall, Jr. became the oldest male in 80 years to win gold for the U.S. when he defended his title in the 50-meter free at the Athens Games.
The 2000 Sydney Games featured just the second gold-medal tie in Olympic swimming history when Americans Anthony Ervin and Hall, Jr. finished in a dead heat to win gold.
Ervin became the first African-American swimmer to compete in an Olympics for the U.S.
Cesar Cielo won Brazil’s first and only Olympic gold in swimming with a scorching Olympic-record time to win in 2008 at Beijing. As of 2010, Cielo holds the title as world’s fastest swimmer as is the front runner heading into the 2012 London Games.
State-of-the-art training and new developments in the sport, such as body suits and head gear, have led to a consistent drop in times over the years. The first world record in the men's 50-meter freestyle was recognized by the International Swimming Federation in 1976. But the only time the men’s 50-memter freestyle world record was set during an Olympic games was in 1988 when Biondi won the gold in 22.14 seconds. Popov’s winning time in Atlanta in 1992 set an Olympic record at 21.91 seconds. Cielo of Brazil, continues to break his own world record as he readies for the 2012 Olympics. Cielo set the current Olympic mark in 2008 at 21.30 seconds.
Despite appearing in just six of the third Olympic games, the men’s 50-meter freestyle has had some remarkable moments. The 21-year-old Cielo set the pool ablaze during the 2008 games, breaking Popov's Olympic Record of 21.91 in the opening heat and then resetting it in each additional heat, including the gold-medal winning time of 21.30.
But it's hard to top the 1992 50-meter final. The race was expected to be a duel between American rivals Biondi and Tom Jager, the two icons of the sport for the past decade. The pair combined to record 23 of the 24 fastest times in history to that point. But Popov, then a 20-year-old unknown, jumped to an early lead and was never challenged, swimming to gold in an Olympic-record time. Popov defeated the American powerhouse Biondi in both the 50 and 100-meters in Atlanta, and staked claim to the greatest freestyle swimmer. (References 3)