History of Gymnastics

Gymnastics is one of the most popular Olympic sports. It combines grace, beauty, athleticism, and strength in a thrilling display of competition that has captivated fans since the debut of the modern Olympic Games.

Soldier Requirement

Gymnastics formally originated in ancient Greece, where it was used by soldiers to get ready for war. The skills and strength needed to perform gymnastic moves-running, jumping, tumbling, mounting and dismounting horses-were all thought to be great assets to those battling on the war field.

As a result, gymnastics became a vital component of Greek education. It was mandatory for all students to practice the sport and eventually the gymnasiums developed into schools where gymnastics, music, and mathematics were all taught and perfected. And as the Roman Empire gained power and ascended to the Greek peninsula, Greek gymnastics evolved into nothing more than glorified military training.

This tradition continued across centuries and continents. In the early 19th century, the United States Military began adopting gymnastics for their own training programs. By the 20th century, the US Army had a mandatory list of drills for soldiers to practice, a culmination of gymnastic maneuvers targeted to build muscles and strengthen active young men.

In the beginning of the 20th century, however, militaries around the world began to focus on a different kind of strength-advanced technology, equipment and arsenals of weaponry. As a result, gymnastics lost its power as a military training tool and eventually became a respected sport in its own right.

Modern Day Apparatus is Born

The sport of modern gymnastics really began to develop in the late 18th to early 19th centuries. During this time, two physical educators named Johann Friedrich GutsMuth and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, designed the now familiar apparatuses like the horizontal bar, parallel bars, side horse with pommels, balance beam, and vaulting horse. Boys were taught how to perform specific activities on each different apparatus and with such technique specification, the sport of gymnastics was born. For this reason, Freidrich Jahn is known as the “father of gymnastics.”

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) formed in 1891 and five years later, gymnastics was included in the first modern Olympic Games, where Germany dominated and took home almost every medal in the competition.

Women first started participating in gymnastic events in the 1920s and were first included in the Olympics in the 1928 Games held in Amsterdam.

Fun Fact:

In the 1920s, women could only compete in synchronized calisthenics. It wasn’t until 1952 that all women were eligible to compete in a wider variety of gymnastic events.

Gymnastics is Standardized

In 1954, the sport was standardized to regulate the different events and apparatuses for women and men. Men’s gymnastics was set to include both individual and team events with the following apparatuses: Floor, horizontal bar, parallel bars, still rings, pommel horse, and vault. Women were allowed to compete in four events as individuals and as a team: Vault, balance beam, uneven parallel bars, and floor.

The ten to one scoring system was also introduced that same year and by 1955, modern gymnastics had become the sport we recognize today.

In 1962, rhythmic gymnastics was recognized by FIG as a legal competition. However, it wasn’t until the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles that it officially became an Olympic event. Trampoline was added as an official Olympic sport in the 2000 Sydney Games. Both rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline fall under the athletic umbrella of gymnastics.

The Perfect 10

For years, the sport of gymnastics was considered a strength sport for men and a grace sport for women-men would score high for their extreme power and physicality, and women would score high for their grace and artistic flourish. In 1972, however, that double standard changed when a 17-year old Soviet gymnast named Olga Korbut burst onto the gymnastic scene. She was the first woman to combine strength and power with the grace expected of a female gymnast and her sky-high scores proved the style was here to stay.

During the 1970s, television audiences continued to be captivated by the amazing feats of gymnasts. In the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, another young female gymnast won the hearts of people world-wide. Her name: Nadia Comaneci. The ponytailed little girl completed four routines that scored perfect ten’s: Two on the balance beam, one on the uneven bars and one on the floor exercise.

Her perfect scores and inspiring feats caused a wave of young kids across the world to sign up for gymnastics lessons. Mary-Lou Retton was one of these girls. She was coached by Bela Karolyi, Nadia’s former coach, and competed with power and gusto on her way to two perfect 10’s in the 1984 Olympics, which led to her winning the women’s All-Around Champion title.

Controversy Creates Change

For over 80 years, gymnastics was based on a point scale that ranged from one to ten. A perfect score of 10 was the stuff of legend (as seen with Nadia Comaneci) and the ultimate goal of every gymnast. But after Comaneci and the 1976 Olympics, judges started to become more liberal with their scores and the “10” lost much of its significance.

In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, for example, 44 perfect tens were handed out. As a result of score inflation, it became increasingly difficult to differentiate between a good routine (performed well and with high levels of difficulty) and an excellent routine (performed perfectly and with an even higher degree of difficulty).

In the 1990s, the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) felt that too many ten’s were being awarded and decided to overhaul the entire system. They gave routines start values based on level of difficulty and the succession of tricks in the routine. Any error would deduct from that start value – making it virtually impossible to score a 10.

This scoring system stood throughout the 1990s. However in 2004 at the Athens games, controversy erupted. American Paul Hamm was awarded the gold medal in the men’s all-around competition after winning by only 12/1000’s of a point. Later, the bronze medal winner, Yang Tae Young from South Korea, filed a protest claiming that his final score on the parallel bars was inaccurate because it was mistakenly given an incorrect start value. If the start value for the routine had been correct, Young-not Hamm-would have won the gold.

A huge controversy ensued. Three of the judges were fired, Hamm was asked to give up his medal, then asked to share it, and finally after a lengthy court process, was officially recognized as the winner.

Spurred by this controversy, in 2005 the FIG changed its code of points to reflect a new way of differentiating between gymnast’s routines. The perfect 10 was dismissed for a new, more complicated judging procedure that analyzed performances based on starting difficulty and execution. In the current system, a good score is usually in the mid-to-high 16’s-not quite the same ring as the perfect 10, but possibly more fair and accurate for the competitors.

Where We Are Today

Throughout the years, gymnastic greats such as Shannon Miller, Keri Strug, Paul Hamm, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and many others, have carried gymnastics popularity throughout the world. Today gymnastics is one of the most popular Olympic sports and thousands of children around the world sign up for gymnastic lessons every year.

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