Skip to Content

Gymnastics

What are Gymnastics?

Gymnastics is a sport involving performance of exercises requiring physical strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, balance and grace. Artistic gymnastics is the best known and most popular of the gymnastics sports governed by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG). Artistic Gymnastics, typically involves the women's events of uneven parallel bars, balance beam, floor exercise, and vault. Men's events include floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars, and high bar. Gymnastics evolved from exercises used by the ancient Greeks, that included skills for mounting and dismounting a horse, and from circus performance skills. Other forms of gymnastics are rhythmic gymnastics, various trampolining sports, and aerobic and acrobatic gymnastics.

History

To the Ancient Greeks, physical fitness was paramount, and all Greek cities had a gymnasium, a courtyard for jumping, running, and wrestling. As the Roman Empire ascended, Greek gymnastics gave way to military training. The Romans, for example, introduced the wooden horse. In 393 AD the Emperor Theodosius abolished the Olympic Games, which by then had become corrupt, and gymnastics, along with other sports, declined. Later, Christianity, with its medieval belief in the base nature of the human body, had a deleterious effect on gymnastics. For centuries, gymnastics was all but forgotten.

In the sixteenth century, Girolamo Mercuriale from Forlì (Italy) wrote De Arte Gymnastica, where he brought his studies of the attitudes of the ancients toward diet, exercise and hygiene, and the use of natural methods for the cure of disease. With its explanations concerning the principles of physical therapy, De Arte Gymnastica is considered the first book on sports medicine.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, two pioneer physical educators – Johann Friedrich GutsMuths (1759–1839) and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778–1852) – created exercises for boys and young men on apparatus they designed that ultimately led to what is considered modern gymnastics. In particular, Jahn crafted early models of the horizontal bar, the parallel bars (from a horizontal ladder with the rungs removed), and the vaulting horse.

The International Federation of Gymnastics was founded in Liege in 1881. By the end of the nineteenth century, men's gymnastics competition was popular enough to be included in the first "modern" Olympic Games in 1896. However, from then on until the early 1950s, both national and international competitions involved a changing variety of exercises gathered under the rubric gymnastics that would seem strange to today's audiences: synchronized team floor calisthenics, rope climbing, high jumping, running, horizontal ladder, etc. During the 1920s, women organized and participated in gymnastics events, and the first women's Olympic competition – primitive, for it involved only synchronized calisthenics – was held at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam.

By 1954, Olympic Games apparatus and events for both men and women had been standardized in modern format, and uniform grading structures (including a point system from 1 to 10) had been agreed upon. At this time, Soviet gymnasts astounded the world with highly disciplined and difficult performances, setting a precedent that continues to inspire. The new medium of television helped publicize and initiate a modern age of gymnastics. Both men's and women's gymnastics now attract considerable international interest, and excellent gymnasts can be found on every continent. Nadia Comaneci received the first perfect score, at the 1976 Summer Olympics held in Montreal, Canada. She was coached by the famous Romanian, Bela Karolyi. According to Sports Illustrated, Comaneci scored four of her perfect tens on the uneven bars, two on the balance beam and one in the floor exercise. Even with Nadia's perfect scores, however, the Romanians lost the gold medal to the Soviets. Nevertheless, Comaneci became an Olympic icon.

In 2006, a new points system was put into play. Instead of being marked 1 to 10, the gymnast's start value depends on the difficulty rating of the exercise routine. Also, the deductions became higher: before the new point system developed, the deduction for a fall was 0.5, then it was changed to 0.8, and is now 1.0. The motivation for a new point system was to decrease the chance of gymnasts getting a perfect score. The sport can include children as young as three years old and sometimes younger doing kindergym and children's gymnastics, recreational gymnasts of all ages, competitive gymnasts at varying levels of skill, as well as world class athletes.