Long before diving was a competitive sport, people enjoyed jumping and leaping into water off of bridges, rocks and cliffs. During the 1800s, “plunging” became popular. Competitions were held to see which diver could glide underwater the farthest after plunging head-first from various heights.
Hundreds of years later, diving has evolved into a unique athletic sport that requires skill, grace, courage and strength. It is a combination of gymnastics and ballet performed over water.
Olympic Diving Controversy
In the late 1800s, so-called “fancy diving,” with somersaults and twists, became popular when, as part of summer training in Sweden and Germany, gymnasts moved their equipment to the beaches. Acrobatics over the water became a popular activity.
However, it wasn’t until 1904 that Diving made its Olympic debut. Men’s platform diving and plunging were the only two events held. The event was really a combination of both springboard and platform diving. The Americans and Germans were the only two countries competing. The winner of that event was an American by the name of George Sheldon. But Sheldon’s title did not come without controversy.
The Germans performed more difficult dives, but often crashed onto their stomachs in their attempts. They believed that a dive’s degree of difficulty was more important than the actual performance of the dive. The Americans performed easier dives, but did so more gracefully. They believed that the performance was more significant. Protests took place and eventually Sheldon’s title was upheld. That decision ultimately became a precedent: The entry and performance of a dive is more significant than a harder dive performed poorly.
In 1912, women’s platform diving was added to the Olympic program. But that year, women were only allowed to perform plain dives without twists or somersaults. In 1920, the women’s springboard event was added to the Olympic Games. However, it was not until 1928 that women would perform so called, “fancy dives” in an Olympic venue.
Diving Finds its Olympic Identity
In 1928, Olympic organizers combined men’s plain diving and men’s fancy diving into one event, and finally allowed women to use twists and somersaults in their dives. Although dive complexity would progress dramatically and scoring would undergo many changes during the next 75 years, the events contested in the Olympic Games stayed the same until the addition of synchronized diving in the year 2000.
The United States dominated Olympic competition from 1920 through the early 1990s. In the 1980s, the Chinese began to emerge as the top nation in women’s international diving competitions, and their reign continues today. In 2000, the Chinese men’s and women’s teams combined to win five of the eight Olympic gold medals given in the sport. In 2008, the year Beijing hosted the Olympic Games, China won seven of the eight diving gold medals. This included a gold-medal sweep of the women’s events.
Collegiate Diving Gains Popularity
Along with the United States’ dominance on the international scene came a dramatic increase in participation at lower levels of the sport. This was partly due to the growth of diving at the collegiate level. Mike Peppe, head of the Ohio State University swimming and diving program from the 1930s into the 1960s, was a leader of that movement. He treated swimming and diving programs equally, which ultimately led to specialized diving coaching positions at many American universities.
Technology and Diving
Throughout its history, the sport of diving has benefitted from advances in technology. Today’s training facilities include trampolines and dry boards with harness rigs and gymnastics equipment such as crash mats and foam pits. The bubble machine, invented by Herb Flewwellyn in the late 1960s, allowed divers to attempt new dives without risking major injuries (By creating a mass of bubbles in the center of the diving well, the bubble machine breaks the surface tension of the water and creates a “soft landing” zone). In addition, video technology offered divers the opportunity to analyze and perfect small details of their execution.
The diving board itself has even been re-invented several times. Despite the name, the first “springboards” did not offer divers much spring. The earliest springboards were merely wood planks covered with coconut-mats. One of the men frequently credited with the development of a springier springboard was Ernst Brandsten, a Swedish man also known as the “Father of diving in the United States.”
Although Brandsten made many contributions to the development of competitive diving (including the institution of dry-land training), he and Fred Cady are reputed to be the first to use both a springboard that could actually flex, and a movable fulcrum, which divers use to add or take away bounce. Today’s fiberglass boards (Duraflex board is the standard in Olympic diving since 1960) give divers the ability to flex the board to the degree that gives them the maximum potential for height and agility. This profound difference in springboard diving has contributed greatly to the success of the sport.
All of diving’s technological innovations, including more flexible springboards, have fostered tremendous growth in the variety and complexity of dives that athletes can execute. In 1904, divers performed 14 platform dives and 20 springboard dives. At that time, a double somersault from the platform had a high degree of difficulty and was actually considered to be quite dangerous.
By the year 2000, the list of dives in the FINA rulebook had grown to include more than 60 springboard dives, 85 platform dives, and four dive positions (straight, pike, tuck and free). The excitement and variety of possible dives makes diving one of the most watched Olympic sports.