History of Gymnastics

Gymnast on pommel horse

Combining speed, strength, agility and grace, the sport of gymnastics is always a crowd pleaser. Gymnastics is one of the world's oldest sports, tracing its roots back to ancient Greece. Gymnastics was one of the sports at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and by 1928 it had transformed into its current form. Modern gymnasts may be surprised to learn how long their favorite elements have been a part of the sport, and how recent other additions are.

Ancient Gymnastics

In ancient Greece, the participants practiced naked, and the word translates from the Greek as "to exercise naked." When Greece started holding the Olympic games, approximately 3,000 years ago, gymnastics were included. A different sport at the time, tumbling and vaulting are the only events that remain in the modern form of gymnastics. Competitions that are now sports in their own right, including wrestling, boxing and track and field events, also comprised gymnastics in the ancient games. The Greeks stopped holding the Olympic Games in A.D. 393. In the ensuing centuries, gymnastics, specifically tumbling, survived as a discipline used primarily in the performing arts. Traveling groups of tumblers and circus performers kept the activity alive.

A New Beginning

In the late 18th century, Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths, a German teacher, divided gymnastics training into two distinct forms, natural and artificial. The artificial branch focused more on aesthetic achievement than in practical application. Tumbling was part of the artificial school. One event, originally considered a natural action, eventually made its way to the artificial side. In Muths' time, people rode horses and vaulting and mounting were considered practical applications. Over time, the vault became an artificial discipline, and the words mount and dismount survive in gymnastics terminology to this day.

Modern Competition

Another German, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, created clubs called Turnverein, which were dedicated to the practice of gymnastics and other forms of physical exercise. The competitions he held in Berlin during the early 19th century marked the beginning of modern competitive gymnastics. Jahn invented the parallel bars, and taught his students the pommel horse; balance beam; horizontal bar; and rope and pole climbing. In 1819, a gymnast murdered a German playwright, and the Prussian King Frederick William III closed many gymnastic centers. Gymnasts were under suspicion, and three of Jahn's students left for America, bringing gymnastics to the New World in the 1830s. Germany lifted the ban on gymnastics in 1842, and by 1860 the Germans again hosted gymnastic competitions. Founded in 1881, the Bureau of the European Gymnastics Federation held the first modern international competitions. In the United States, the Amateur Athletic Union added the sport to its roster in 1883.

Modern Olympics

The first modern Olympic Games included men's gymnastics, although the sport still encompassed track and field elements and rope climbing. The Olympic Games of 1928 marked the first time the sport was performed with most of the elements that are still used today. In those games, the gymnasts competed in pommel horse, vault, parallel bars, horizontal bar and rings. The 1928 Olympics marked the debut of women's gymnastics, a competition that included the balance beam. Men's and women's floor exercises were performed at the 1932 games. Rhythmic gymnastics was added to the Olympics in 1984, and trampoline became an Olympic event for men and women in 2000.