The history of competitive diving spans roughly 100 years. During this period the nature of diving has changed dramatically. Junior divers now routinely perform dives once banned at the Olympic Games. A report following the IV Olympiad suggested elimination of the double somersault, because it was believed that a diver could not control the execution without risk of injury!

Gold medallist, Dorothy Poynton of the USA, performing a swan dive in the 1932 Olympics

Diving originated from people amusing themselves by jumping and diving from natural features (rocks and cliffs) or from structures built for other purposes (piers and bridges); early swimming and diving clubs were based on ponds. In particular, travellers reported amazing feats performed by natives diving from the cliffs in Acapulco, Mexico and in Hawaii.

Origins of competitive diving

In the early nineteenth century, the only 'dive' was a simple plunge, similar to that used by swimmers. The diver springs from the bathside and aims to travel as far as possible under water. In Britain National Plunging Championships were held from 1883 to 1937 - but continue to this day in Yorkshire.

Plain and fancy diving


Richard Degener of the USA won a gold medal on springboard in the 1936 Olympics

The early competitions involved just plain dives from platforms- they involved the dive we now call a forward dive straight . The Swedes performed graceful Swallow dives. In Britain the dive was originally performed with the arms held above the head in flight, and was known as the English header; however, this proved more difficult and not so visually pleasing as the Swedish version and eventually died out.

The sport as we know it today developed from gymnastics rather than swimming. At the beginning of the century the divers were mostly Swedish and German gymnasts who preferred practising with landings in water, rather than on hard floors. In summer gymnastic equipment was transferred to the beaches so that gymnasts could perform acrobatics and land in the sea. Diving involving gymnastic movements such as somersaults and/or twists was referred to as fancy diving. For some years, separate competitions were held for plain and fancy diving.

Diving on the River Cam

In Europe fancy diving originated from platforms, and progressed to springboards. In America, diving started later and evolved from springboard diving. In Europe the early platforms were temporary structures erected out of doors for the summer and then dismantled; most involved vertical ladders and were somewhat hazardous, particularly in windy weather.

The early springboards consisted of planks of wood covered in coconut matting to prevent divers from slipping. They were not very springy! In the early days there was no 'standard' springboard, so visiting divers having to use an unfamiliar board were always at a disadvantage.

Body Positions

In the early 1920s most fancy dives from platform and springboard were performed in the straight position. As dives became more complex, the straight position became less feasible, as the rotation was too slow. In 1921 the Amateur Diving Association (England) stated: 'Certain somersaults may be made with a bend at the hips and knees if the board is not sufficiently high to allow the limbs to be kept straight. 'Back Front' dives should be performed with no bend at the hips or knees, but from a low board it will be found necessary to bend at the hips.' With the introduction of multiple somersaults, it became necessary to introduce the piked and tucked positions.

In the 1920 Olympic Games, the Header Forward (straight), the Pike Dive and the Hunch Dive (tucked) were listed as three distinct dives. Later it was decided to count them all as the same dive.

International competitions

Diving developed rapidly through the first half of the twentieth century.

The British Empire Games (now the Commonwealth Games, held every four years) were first held in Canada in 1903.

Marshall Wayne Winner of the Gold Medal on Platform in 1936

Divers (male) first competed in the Olympic Games in 1904. The Olympic Games also take place every four years, but were not held during the war years. For many decades the Games were dominated by American divers; in recent years they have been dominated by the Chinese.

Prior to 1924 diving tables were extremely complicated; for example, a dive performed from a standing take-off had a higher degree of difficulty than that of the same dive performed with a running take-off. The take-off for each forward or reverse dive could be performed in three ways: standing, running from one foot or running from both feet. A headfirst entry could be performed 'with or without hands' - that is, with the arms above the head or against the side of the body! A competition consisted of 10 compulsory dives and 2 'post' dives drawn out of a hat; the latter were the more difficult dives and caused the competitors great anxiety - fortunately this idea has now been dropped!

The 1928 Olympic competition included compulsory and voluntary dives; the compulsory dives were selected after each Olympic Games and were in force for the following four years. This form of competition continued for twenty years. From 1949 to 1956 all dives were voluntary on platform and springboard, so the basic dives were rarely seen in competition. The conditions were then revised to include five required basic dives from the springboard, and restrictions on women's diving were removed.

In recent years competitions in synchronized diving have been introduced.

Degree of Difficulty
It was not until 1994 that the degree of difficulty of each dive was defined on a logical basis, allowing specified contributions for the following:
  • number of half somersaults
  • the flight position
  • number of half twists
  • the approach
  • unnatural entry

Diving in Britain

The first diving stage in England was erected at Highgate Ponds in 1893. In 1895 the Royal Life Saving Society staged the first National Graceful Diving Championship at Highgate Ponds; it involved standing and running plain dives from firm boards at heights of 4.6 metres and 10 metres, and was for men only.

The first British club was Highgate Diving Club, founded in 1928 and based at Highgate Ponds in North London. It was set up by a group of English divers following the Olympic Games in Amsterdam which demonstrated the supremacy of American divers. Diving at Highgate Ponds involved dangers not encountered by divers of today: creaky boards, rusty iron ladders, murky water with pond-life both above and below the surface. Sometimes it was necessary to delay a dive to allow a group of ducks to go by; touching the bottom of the pond stirred up a cloud of muddy water and encounters with unknown objects such as old bottles and cans.

By 1939 the club dominated the British diving scene, but was then inoperative during the war years. Subsequently Highgate produced many outstanding divers.

The club was a male only club for many years - the diving platform at Highgate Ponds was in the men's pool and women had no access to it. Women were finally admitted as members in 1990, as many of them were already being coached by the Highgate coaches.

Brockwell Lido, London

A diving competition at Brockwell Lido, 1930s


Modern diving

In recent years diving has evolved very rapidly and great advances have been made in complexity, for the following reasons.

Improved Facilities

Improved Technology

include the following:
  • standard alloy springboards
  • bubble machines
  • trampolines with rigs
  • gymnastic facilities such as sprung floors and crash-mats
  • safer depths of water, and use of water agitators
Bubble machines enable divers to learn new dives without risk of injury. They were invented by a Canadian, Herb Flewwelling, in the late 1960s.
Today divers benefit from the use of video and highspeed film; this enables them to analyse their dives in detail, and compare them with those of their opponents. This facility is particularly important in diving, since the consequences of faults in take-off may not be apparent until the diver is in the air.

Improved Understanding of Biomechanics

Improved Support
The understanding of the mechanics of somersaulting and twisting has improved greatly over the years; divers no longer try to achieve movements which are physically impossible! Elite divers now enjoy the support of physiotherapists and psychologists; they are regularly assessed for fitness and stress.


Masters diving

In recent years, competitive Masters diving has been introduced, catering for adults of all standards and all ages. Competitions are held mainly to provide opportunities to meet and to share the enjoyment of diving. It is common to find ex-Olympic divers and novices in the same competition.

In the UK, National Masters and Junior Masters Open Championships were started in 1994, and this is now an annual event.

LEN established a Masters Committee in the 1990s.

World Masters Championships
have been held every two years since 1986:

1986 Japan
1988 Brisbane, Australia
1990 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
1992 Indianapolis, USA
1994 Montreal, Canada
1996 Sheffield, UK
1998 Casablanca, Morocco
2000 Munich, Germany
2002 Christchurch, New Zealand
2004 Riccione, Italy
2006 San Francisco, USA
European Masters Championships
have been held in the in-between years:

1987 Blackpool, UK
1989 Turku, Finland
1991 Coventry, UK
1993 Sindelfingen, Germany
1995 Riccione, Italy
1997 Prague, Czech Republic
1999 Innsbruck, Austria
2001 Palma, Majorca
2003 Millau, France
2005 Stockholm, Sweden