Men’s 50 Freestyle vs 100-Meter Dash: Breaking Magical Barriers


By Daniel Takata on SwimSwam

This article originally appeared in the 2022 Fall edition of SwimSwam Magazine. Subscribe here to the SwimSwam Magazine here.

During the 2022 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Brazilian superstar veteran Bruno Fratus set the 100th 21-point 50 freestyle of his career. This moment was highly anticipated, as he came to Budapest having clocked 97 swims under the 22-second barrier. He expected to swim his 100th 21-point in the final of the event, but it happened during a swim-off following the semifinals. It was anticlimactic, since he lost the semifinal to France’s Maxime Grousset and could not compete in the final to try for his fourth medal in the event at World Championships.

Anyway, it was a historical accomplishment. Cracking the 22-second barrier is not an easy feat, let alone doing it so many times. To put that in perspective, the next swimmer, Britain’s Ben Proud, has registered 71 21-point swims in his career.

The 50 freestyle is the fastest event in swimming. The champion of that event is considered the fastest swimmer in the world — just like the winner of the 100-meter dash is considered the fastest runner in the world. And the magical barrier in the 100-meter dash has been the 10-second.

So, which is harder: cracking the 22-second in the 50 freestyle or cracking the 10-second in the 100 dash?

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

How many men have broken these magical barriers?

Men have been running in the 9-second territory in the 100 dash long before the first swimmer cracked the 22-second barrier in the 50 free.

In 1968, American Jim Hines (also an NFL player) won the Olympic gold medal in Mexico in 9.95, becoming the first runner to officially break the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters.

It was not until 1990 that a swimmer would crack the 22-second in the men’s 50 freestyle. The first one was American Tom Jager, at the US Sprint in Nashville in a 21.98.

As of today (July 2022), there have been 165 men who have broken the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters, and 114 swimmers under the 22-second barrier in the 50 freestyle. This seems logical: After all, there were runners into the 10-second territory long before swimmers into the 21-second territory.

But then there is this interesting statistic: Swimmers have registered 1,218 21-point swims, and runners have set 1,124 9-point performances. This means that a given swimmer, on average, has been able to crack this magical barrier more often than a runner.

Actually, over the last years, swimmers have indeed achieved the feat more frequently than runners. By 2021, 33 swimmers had broken the 22-second in the 50 freestyle 134 times. By the same year, 24 runners had broken the 10-second in the 100-meter dash 82 times.

In other words, the 10-second barrier was broken by runners more than 20 years before swimmers could break the 22-second, but swimmers increased their speed over the years more than runners. That is why a 21-point swim is more frequent than a 9-point run.

The kings of consistency

And what about specific runners and swimmers? Is there any runner who has broken the 10-second barrier 100 times, just like Bruno Fratus did in swimming?

Actually, there isn’t. Jamaican Asafa Powell is the one who is the closest to get to 100 sub-10s, as he has registered 97 9-point performances. Since he announced his retirement last year, we will probably have to wait a few years to witness a man getting to 100 sub-10s, as American Justin Gatlin (64), world record holder Jamaica Usain Bolt (52) and American Maurice Greene (51) are all retired. Among active runners, Mike Rodgers leads the pack with 46 9-point performances.

On the other hand, of the top eight swimmers in the 50 free, only Cesar Cielo has  announced his retirement, and most of them have been registering sub-22 performances in 2021-22. Bruno Fratus with his 100 sub-22s leads the ranking. He is followed by the current world champion Ben Proud of Great Britain with 71 and Nathan Adrian from the United States with 65 (who has not officially retired, however, he has not competed on the elite level since June of 2021).

Men’s 100-meter Dash Men’s 50 Freestyle
Athlete # Sub-10 Athlete # Sub-22
Asafa Powell (JAM) 97 Bruno Fratus (BRA) 100
Justin Gatlin (USA) 64 Ben Proud (GBR) 71
Usain Bolt (JAM) 52 Nathan Adrian (USA) 65
Maurice Greene (USA) 51 Vladimir Morozov (RUS) 64
Mike Rodgers (USA) 46 Florent Manaudou (FRA) 62
Yohan Blake (JAM) 44 Cesar Cielo (BRA) 59
Tyson Gay (USA) 36 Michael Andrew (USA) 45
Akani Simbine (RSA) 31 Kristian Gkolomeev (GRE) 42
Nesta Carter (JAM) 29 Frederick Bousquet (FRA) 35
Ato Boldon (TRI) 28 Cullen Jones (USA) 30

So, which is harder, a sub-10 in track or a sub-22 in swimming? There have been more men who have run in the 9-second territory, but swimmers have been able to produce more 21-point swims, especially in the last years.

Anyway, cracking these barriers does not necessarily win medals or titles, but doing so is a demonstration of speed, consistency and longevity. That’s why all the runners and swimmers mentioned here are recognized among the best sprinters of all time.

SwimSwam: Men’s 50 Freestyle vs 100-Meter Dash: Breaking Magical Barriers

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