The sport of Gymnastics dates far beyond the Ancient Olympic Games. Acrobats entertained Egyptian nobility about 7,000 years ago and, judging by ancient frescoes, acrobats vaulted over the backs of bulls on the island of Crete when the Minoan civilization flourished, beginning about 2,700 BC. The Chinese some 2000 years before Ancient Olympic Games practised ritual mass Gymnastic exercises as part of the art of “Wushu”.
The term “gymnastics” derives from the Greek word for naked “gymnos”. In ancient Greece, male athletes trained and competed in the nude. Physical training took place in the palestra, a square, walled, open-air area equipped with changing rooms and baths. Activities included running, jumping, weightlifting, throwing, wrestling, and swimming, all classified as gymnastics.
The Romans followed the Greek example, to a point. The gymnasium was basically a training place for the Roman legions. The wooden horse was a Roman innovation, used to train soldiers to mount and dismount quickly. However, the Romans had little interest in sport for sport’s sake, and the Greek practice of nude exercise was viewed with distaste, as leading to the vice of homosexuality.
With the fall of Rome and the spread of Christianity through Europe, the knowledge that exercise leads to physical fitness seems to have been lost, along with the ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Acrobatics survived, though. During Medieval times, traveling minstrel shows included songs, stories, and tumbling.
Modern gymnastics began with the work of Johann Friedrich GutsMuths (1759-1839) from Germany, who developed a complete program of exercises designed to improve balance and suppleness as well as muscular strength. His follower – a gymnastics teacher Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) believed, that turnen was an old Teutonic word that meant doing gymnastics, and he adopted it in place of Gymnastik. A gymnast was a Turner, a gymnastics organization a Turnverein, a gymnasium a Turnplatz, and a gymnastics festival a Turnfest. Jahn developed three types of apparatus that are still used in gymnastics: the high bar, parallel bars, and rings. He also created the forerunner of the balance beam, in form of a long pine log suspended on supports. But his influence went far beyond mere apparatus and teaching techniques.
Another of GutsMuths’ disciples was Franz Nachtegall, who founded a private gymnasium in Copenhagen in 1799. The Crown Prince of Denmark felt that gymnastics would be useful for military training. He created the Military Gymnastic Institute in 1804 and appointed Nachtegall its director. Per Henrik Ling of Sweden (1766-1839) studied at Nachtegall’s gymnasium for five years and brought the ideas he learned back to his native country. Jahn’s system of exercise and use of apparatus had focused mainly on developing muscular strength. Ling, who was also a fencing master, was more interested in the harmonious development of the body. He focused on movements leading to esthetically pleasing body positions. Where Jahn’s gymnasts often did exercises while holding dumbbells, Ling emphasized free exercises. Because he worked primarily with the military at the royal institute, Ling’s classes were highly regimented. Students followed the leader in a series of movements that had to be performed in sequence and in unison, ending in the specified body position. However, Ling’s followers placed more emphasis on self-expression through an individual’s movement, bringing gymnastics somewhat closer to dance.
Gymnastics spread through Europe primarily as physical training for the military. In France, Francisco Amoros founded the Ecole de Joinville for military training in 1852. Amoros espoused a system of gymnastics that included work on apparatus, calisthenics, and singing. Phokion Heinrich Clias (1782-1854) became a gymnastics instructor in Switzerland and worked with the Swiss Army early in the 19th century. Archibald MacLaren opened a private gymnasium in Oxford in 1858.
Starting with the military, gymnastics trickled down, so to speak. Civilian federations were formed in several European countries. The German Gymnastics Club was the first, in 1860. The Prague Gymnastic Association, later renamed Prague Sokol was founded by Miroslav Tyrs and Jindrich Fugner on February 16th, 1862 as the first physical education organization in the Austro – Hungarian empire at a time of political freedom in the 1860´s. Eight other units were founded in Bohemia and Moravia in the same year. The leader Miroslav Tyrs invented gymnastic exercises and terminology (The Basis of Gymnastics). In 1869, the Gymnastic Society of Czech Women and Girls was founded. Other federations were established in Belgium in 1865, Poland in 1867, Holland in 1868, France in 1873, and Russia in 1883. Pyotr Lesgaft, the founder of the Russian gymnastics movement, worked with the Imperial Army beginning in 1874. He felt that Jahn’s gymnastics, as promulgated by the Turners, was too dependent on equipment. Lesgaft’s methods, like Ling’s, emphasized movement. England’s Amateur Gymnastic and Fencing Association was founded in 1888.
The European Gymnastics Federation FEG (Fédération Européenne de Gymnastique), which included representatives from Belgium, France and the Netherlands was founded on July 23, 1881 in Liège and Nicolas J. Cupérus was named a President. Forty years later, on April 7th 1921, the FEG office becomes the International Gymnastics Federation FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique). Sixteen members are present.
Gymnastics is among the oldest Olympic sports, dating back to ancient times, when the competitors performed a variety of events that could loosely be termed “gymnastics”. These included wrestling and vaulting over bulls, as well as the first modern Games in 1896 in Athens (GRE). When Gymnastics first appeared on the Olympic programme in 1896 it included events such as rope-climbing and club-swinging.
Women first competed in Gymnastics events at the 1928 Games in a team event (large groups of women competed in 1908 and 1912). . It was not until 1952 that individual apparatus was used at the Games.
Rhythmic Gymnastics was not introduced until 1984 and at the Sydney 2000 Games a new discipline of Trampolining was added to the programme, with one men’s event and one women’s event.
Stanislav Mikulas, Ph.D.