The history of gymnastics is a long and interesting one. As an introduction here is a brief look at just how a discipline practiced by naked Greek men became the graceful, dazzling – and fully clothed – sport it is today.
Gymnastics in Ancient Times
The history of gymnastics actually dates all the way back to the times of the Ancient Greeks. Back then though it was not so much a sport as a conditioning regime for athletes involved in other sports. And that in many ways makes sense as gymnastics does involve physical skills – coordination, precise body control, strength and grace – that certainly can benefit athletes in other sporting disciplines, even today. The Ancients Greeks practiced gymnastics a little differently than the gymnasts of today though, as when they did get around to formalizing the sport a little they called it gymnazein, literally, “to exercise naked”, and that is exactly what they did. Once the Romans got hold of the idea – they were of course absolute masters at taking something new or interesting from another culture and making it their own – they saw another purpose for gymnastics; a military training tool for their famed mighty Legions. Once again this worked rather well and other regimes began using gymnastics to train their forces as well. In fact up until the early 20th century gymnastics formed a part of the training of US and European armed forces training.
Gymnastics as a Formal Sport
As gymnastics fell out of favor as a military training tool it began to regain popularity as an actual sport. The rise of the ‘new’ sport of gymnastics began in Germany in the late 1700s. There one Friedrich Ludwig Jahn of Germany opened a school that taught a form of the art that made use of some of his personal inventions, including three pieces of equipment the gymnasts of today are very familiar with; the beam, the vault and the parallel bars. At the same time, over in Sweden a teacher named Guts Muth was developing a more graceful form of the sport. One which focused on grace of movement and athletic flexibility rather than sheer strength. Eventually the two ‘kinds’ of gymnastics began to merge and gain popularity across Europe and then finally ‘arriving’ in the US during the Civil War, as introduced by college professor Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent.
Gymnastics as an Olympic Sport
When the first ‘modern’ Olympic Games were staged in 1896 gymnastics was on the agenda, but only for men. It was not until 1924 that women were even allowed to perform on an exhibition basis and it was 1936 before it become a formal women’s event. Initially, Olympic gymnastics competitions tended to be dominated by athletes from the countries that had first taken the sport seriously, mainly Germany and Eastern Europe. By the 1950s though formal training programs – often backed by government funds – in Japan, the Soviet Union, the US and China began producing both male and female athletes who were serious and impressive contenders for both Olympic and world competition glory.
The Rise of Gymnast as Superstars
Before the 1976 Olympics in Montreal there had been a number of fantastic gymnasts who had been considered stars of the sport but that particular staging of the Games gave rise to something new; the international gymnastic superstar. On the female side especially the gymnastic talent on display gripped the world with Russians Nellie Kim and Olga Korbut dazzling audiences and of course the 14 year old Romanian Nadia Comăneci, who became the first gymnast to ever achieve a perfect ten in professional gymnastic competition. After the Olympics all three become not only national heroines in their homelands but also international stars, their pictures adorning posters in young people’s bedrooms all over the world. There have been a number of similarly ‘huge’ inspirational stars to capture the attention and excitement of the young since, including Americans Bart Conner, Kurt Thomas, Mary Lou Retton, the ladies of the 2012 US ‘Fierce Five’ and, going into the 2016 a young woman who is being touted as one of the best gymnasts ever, Simone Biles. So, as you can see, thousands of years after it was ‘invented’ gymnastics remains more popular than ever, with children as young as two or three getting involved, initially for fun, and for some, later on, as a career. Thankfully though the leotard has long been a feature of competition as well, something that might actually amuse the Ancient Greeks if they could see it now!
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