What is the new swimming mixed medley relay event?

(L-R) Adam Peaty, Chris Walker-Hebborn and Siobhan-Marie O'Connor of Great Britain celebrate winning the gold medal in a new world record of 3:41.71 in the Mixed 4x100m Medley Relay Final at the 16th FINA World Championships in 2015 (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
(L-R) Adam Peaty, Chris Walker-Hebborn and Siobhan-Marie O'Connor of Great Britain celebrate winning the gold medal in a new world record of 3:41.71 in the Mixed 4x100m Medley Relay Final at the 16th FINA World Championships in 2015 (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

The swimming mixed relay event will make its debut at this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, but do you know what’s involved? We take a look at this new event that has all the makings of being one of the most exciting and unpredictable events in the pool.

This summer, the Tokyo Aquatics Centre will witness the first Olympic mixed 4x100m medley relay, an event Great Britain’s double Olympic champion, Rebecca Adlington, considers “100 per cent one of the most exciting races in swimming.”

What makes this event so exciting? Find out all you need to know below.

What’s involved in the mixed relay event?

The mixed relay event sees teams of four swimmers – two men and two women – racing against each other, with each team member swimming a 100m leg in one the four main swimming strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle), one after the other. Teams can decide which athlete will swim each stroke.

16 teams will compete at the Tokyo 2020 Games, where the event will make its Olympic debut. The winning team will be decided by heats that will take place on 29 July and a final on 31 July.

If you look at it, the four best swimmers on paper should win; but it depends on how you set the relays up.

The history of the mixed 4x100m medley relay

Although mixed relays have been tested before – particularly in freestyle – in competitions such as World Cups and the Youth Olympic Games, it was not until 2013 that FINA officially included them in their programmes. And in 2014, the events made their debut at the Short Course World Championships in Doha.

In the long course (races that take place in a 50 metre Olympic-sized pool), the mixed 4x100m medley relay event made its debut at Kazan 2015, where Great Britain took gold. That day, Chris Walker-Hebborn, Adam Peaty, Siobhan-Marie O’Connor and Francesca Halsall set a new world record of 3:44.02.

What’s new about the discipline?

The event allows men and women to compete alongside and against each other in their respective specialties, with a range of tactics and strategies on show.

“The feeling of everybody, swimmers and coaches and Technical Committee, is that this is a very interesting event with a lot of tactics involved,” then FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said in 2013.

And he was right.

Since its international debut en 2015, the mixed 4x100m medley relay has seen direct clashes between Team USA’s Lilly King and Team GB’s Adam Peaty – both 100m breaststroke world record holders – as well as Canada’s Penny Oleksiak and the USA's Caeleb Dressel, to mention just a few of the electrifying duels that have taken place.

After witnessing some of these enthralling races, Adlington explained what she felt was so exciting about the format: “It’s because of the lead-changing and tactically seeing what the countries do, and how they approach it. It’s a really fun one.”

Her compatriot Mark Foster, a five-time Olympian, also highlighted the role tactics have to play in the event. “If you look at it, the four best swimmers on paper should win; but it depends on how you set the relays up – for example you can send the guys out first and get clear water and then create a lot of wash for the women at the back to try and get through,” he said.

(L-R) Silver medallists Australia, gold medallists The United states and bronze medallists Canada pose with the medals won during the Mixed 4x100m Medley Relay final of the Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(L-R) Silver medallists Australia, gold medallists The United states and bronze medallists Canada pose with the medals won during the Mixed 4x100m Medley Relay final of the Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
2017 Getty Images

Teams to watch out for

After Great Britain won at the 2015 Worlds, the USA were crowned champions in 2017 with a team made up of Matt Grevers, King, Dressel and Simon Manuel. Australia then took the title in 2019 after a strong display by Mitchel Larkin, Matthew Wilson, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell.

However, People’s Republic of China are the current world record holders after setting a time of 3:38.41 in October 2020. They were also bronze medallists, alongside Canada, at the 2017 World Championships.

Surprises are not to be dismissed either, as the event gives more opportunities to different countries. “Where it will help is some of the countries that just don’t have so much depth; it will make them more competitive,” Foster explained, before adding: “Your powerhouses like the USA will always be strong, but others only need two good women and two good men.”

In an event with many variables at stake, the constant position changes in a sub four minutes race is more than thrilling. In addition to speed, strategies and tactics, the ability to deal with so many different scenarios will be key to determining which teams will be on the podium on Saturday 31 July, 2021.

Dare to make a prediction?