views updated May 18 2018


German immigrants to the United States in the middle years of the nineteenth century brought their systems of physical training with them. The German system was based on the development by Frederich Jahn of apparatus upon which skills of strength and agility were performed, often in a competitive setting. These apparatus have developed, with remarkably little change, into the modern events of present Olympic gymnastics as floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vaulting, parallel bars, and horizontal bar. Together they were thought to compose a program of physical training that strengthens and conditions the total body.

Scandinavian immigrants, on the other hand, utilized group calisthenics, tumbling, vaulting, and some specialized suspended beams. Their program was much less strength oriented and emphasized agility and flexibility in a cooperative rather than a competitive setting.

Ethnic immigrants practicing both systems established social clubs in the new country in which many aspects of the mother culture could be practiced, preserved, and passed on to the next generation. Their physical culture was thus preserved along with artistic, expressive, and social activities. The Germans called these social clubs "turnvereins," but they went by different names depending on the importing ethnic group.

The Hegemony of German "Artistic Gymnastics"

In the late 1800s, educators in the United States began to see the value of including physical activities in the school educational program. Given the lack of trained physical training specialists among American educators, they turned to those who had been involved in the training of physical activities. The German turners met this need. They had established, early in their presence in this country, training schools for the development of gymnastic leaders in their turnvereins. These early physical educators brought with them the primary activity of the turner system—gymnastics—and thereby gymnastics got an early foothold in the schools. Some schools, perceiving an inappropriateness of heavy apparatus for girls, sought to institute the Scandinavian system into their programs for females.

Gymnastics in the Schools (1875–1910)

Gymnastics was the prevailing mode of physical education in secondary schools during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. However, it was not popular with many students because of its heavy emphasis on discipline and obedience, and it was subject to criticism by many educators who sought a more "natural" form of physical activity. In 1891, James Naismith, at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College), introduced a game activity designed to appeal to students. This game—basketball—caught on rapidly and was spread through the schools and YMCAs in which graduates of the school were employed. Between 1900 and 1910, the growing "games movement" essentially displaced gymnastics as the primary activity of physical education.

The Amateur Athletic Union and the Olympic Games

Outside the schools, competitive physical activities were catching on in a wide array of sports and games. Clubs sponsoring these activities competed against one another and soon began bringing in skilled performers to ensure victory and the resulting prestige. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was formed to cope with this problem. They registered all known "amateur" athletes and limited competitions to people on that list. People who had played for money or who were not known in the area were excluded. The AAU became a national force as they authorized state affiliates.

Concurrently, the Olympic movement was generating in Europe. Its philosophy called for sport to be a developmental activity for male youth, and, consequently, older or "professionalized" persons were to be excluded. The AAU became instrumental in certifying to the Olympic organizers the "amateur" status of American athletes and thereby became recognized as the "governing body" for gymnastics and many other American sports in the eyes of the International Olympic Committee and the international sports federations.

Regression to the Clubs (1914–1945)

World War I (1914–1918) led to a rejection of things not seen as "American." This rejection, added to the setback from the "games movement," sounded the death knell for gymnastics until after the World War II (1941–1945). Gymnastics did not actually die, but it retreated into the turnvereins and other ethnic clubs that kept many of their activities quiet inside the walls of the club. However, except for the actual war years, they continued to conduct national championships for their members.

The "Athletics Expansion" and the "Fitness Movement"

After World War II, many veterans went to colleges and became teachers, many of whom were physical educators. Their military experiences had instilled in them a high value for sports for fitness and personal growth. Many of them endorsed the expansion of athletics programs beyond the traditional sports of football, basketball, and baseball. In the early 1950s, concern rose about the lack of physical fitness among American youth as a result of the report by H. Kraus and R. Hirschland that showed that American boys were less "fit" than their European counterparts. A strong emphasis on physical fitness was added to sports skill training in physical education and athletics programs were further expanded toward an ideal of "a sport for every boy." Gymnastics prospered from this movement. It was added as part of many physical education programs and boys' gymnastics competitive teams were established in many areas across the country followed rapidly by the proliferation of college men's teams.

Conflict Between the Bureaucracies

While many gymnasts got their start in clubs and high schools, they experienced their growth to maturity as athletes on college teams. Many, if not most, Olympic gymnasts during the 1950s and 1960s were members of college teams whose competition was regulated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). This recognized status of the NCAA promoted tension between the college coaches and the administrators of the AAU. The AAU was reluctant to share decision making with the college coaches and even more so to share positions as coaches and managers of the Olympic teams. College coaches banded together with others who were dissatisfied with the tight hold of the AAU and formed the United States Gymnastic Federation (USGF), which then conducted its own national championships. When the USGF athletes sought to compete in the Olympic qualifying meet, AAU officials informed them that they were not eligible for consideration for the Olympic team. Threats of lawsuits and mutual boycotts followed as the leaders fought for control. In the end, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG)—the international governing body—resolved the issue by shifting its recognition from the AAU to the USGF.

Title IX and the Expansion of Women's Sports

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, gymnastics for girls changed rapidly. Heretofore, girls, when they did compete, participated on the same or slightly modified apparatus as boys and experienced little public recognition. Dance and tumbling began to dominate floor exercise, springboards added excitement to vaulting, and, most of all, the uneven bars were widened and stabilized so that side swinging was possible, thus enabling girls to perform movements of great skill and agility, much like men on the horizontal bar. Female gymnasts had arrived as athletes.

In the 1960s, pressure mounted to provide greater opportunities for girls in sport. The performances of American women, seen in the Olympic Games for the first time on television, were poor in comparison to women from other countries. Supporters of women's sport began to press for greater opportunity for girls and women. The newly formed Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) made efforts to overcome the philosophical opposition by women's physical education groups to adopting the "male model" of sport. Slowly women's teams were established in many sports (including gymnastics) at both high school and college level.

In 1972, Congress passed and the president signed Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act. This act stated that individuals could not be denied any educational opportunity on the basis of their sex. The act put great pressure on schools and colleges to provide equal opportunity in sport. Women's teams were "adopted" or established by athletic departments, and the NCAA began to sponsor championships, which drew women away from the existing AIAW championships because the NCAA sponsored the meets on the same day as the AIAW meets and subsidized the teams' expenses. Naturally, the NCAA soon became the dominant administrative group for women's college athletics.

The Development of Private Gymnastics Clubs

By the late 1970s, gymnastics was thriving at both the high school and the college level. However, success had its problems. The high school limitation on the length of the training season and the lack of technical expertise on the part of many high school coaches led to the formation of many private gymnastics clubs led by experienced college gymnasts who could not find teaching positions or who chose not to join high school programs. These clubs offered the opportunity for year-round training under the guidance of an experienced coach. As the most committed athletes chose the private clubs, the clubs became the preferred recruiting ground for college coaches, and high school gymnastics became teams for the second level of talent.

The "Economic Crunch" and the Constriction of School Gymnastics

From the beginning, the expansion of athletics programs for both men and women was fraught with financial problems. At first, added teams ran on a shoestring. Hand-me-down uniforms and transportation in private cars were the norm. In colleges, junior varsity and freshman teams in the traditional men's sports were frequently discontinued to shift funds to the new programs. Through it all, athletics administrators resisted attempts to cut back on the costs of the traditional high-visibility teams. For those few schools that had considerable income from "cash cow" sports, women's and men's nonrevenue sports flourished. However, those schools were the exception. For most schools, as the costs of achieving success in high-visibility sports rose, as the law demanded equal expenditures for women's sports, and as nonrevenue sports sought to emulate the "sport style" of the major sports, the numbers did not add up. Administrators were unable to meet the expanding athletics budgets without diverting monies from academic programs. Protests from faculties grew, and athletic directors responded by reducing the scope of the programs. Since they saw too much at stake in high-visibility men's sports to cut those, and since they were under legal mandate to provide equity for women, they saw few cost-cutting options other than the elimination of men's and, in some cases women's, nonrevenue sports, gymnastics among them.

As more and more schools cut the smaller men's nonrevenue sports, many of those sports no longer had enough participating schools with which to stage national championships. NCAA rules mandated the minimum number of schools that had to participate in a sport in order to hold a championship event in that sport, and more and more sports were falling below the cutoff line. If it had not been for a concerted effort to preserve collegiate championships for the "Olympic sports" for which college athletics was the gateway, championships in those sports would have been eliminated. By the turn of the twenty-first century, only about twenty colleges and universities still sponsored men's varsity gymnastics teams. High schools also followed this pattern, resulting in many fewer high school teams.

The Future of Gymnastics in the United States

While gymnastics in the early years of the twenty-first century was experiencing hard times in the schools and colleges, it continued to have wide appeal to young people. Its inherent self-testing character and its presentation on television every Olympiad as a glamorous activity for young people gave the sport continued adherents and enthusiasts. Those young people will determine the direction for the future of the sport. During the high school years, many parents will subsidize their children's enthusiasm by paying for club memberships. But where will gymnasts be able to practice their sport after leaving high school? Lacking opportunities for college scholarships and opportunities to practice their sport as members of college teams, all but the best will have to turn to other activities in which their training background is applicable. Typically gymnasts are energetic, goal-oriented, and self-disciplined; they will, consequently, find other activities in which to utilize these attributes.

See also: Basketball, "Muscular Christianity" and the YM(W)CA Movements, Olympics


Clement, Annie. Law in Sport and Physical Activity. Indianapolis, Ind.: Benchmark Press, 1988.

Eisen, George, and D. K. Wiggins. Ethnicity and Sport in North American History and Culture. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Flath, Arnold W. A. "A History of Relations Between the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States." Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1964.

Guttman, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Olympic Games. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Korsgaard, Robert. "A History of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States." Ed.D. diss., Teachers College, Columbia University, 1952.

Kraus, H., and R. Hirschland. "Minimum Muscular Fitness Tests in School Children." Research Quarterly 25 (1954): 178.

Laptad, Richard E. "The Origin, Development and Function of the United States Gymnastics Federation. Ed.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1971.

Suggs, W. "A Federal Commission Wrestles with Gender Equity in Sports." Chronicle of Higher Education (3 January 2003): A41.

——. "Budget Problems and Title IX Spur Sports Cutbacks at 3 Colleges." Chronicle of Higher Education (10 January 2003): A33.

Wallechinsky, D. The Complete Book of the Olympics. New York: Viking Press, 1984.

Wong, G. Essentials of Amateur Sports Law. Westport Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Zeigler, E. A History of Physical Education and Sport in the United States and Canada. Champaign Ill.: Stipes Publishing Company, 1975.

Erik K. M. Kjeldsen


views updated May 29 2018


Gymnastics is a sport with a long history as a training and fitness aid, first as preparation for military service and later as a physical education activity. The Greek word gymnos, meaning "naked," is the root word for gymnastics, as it was in this physical state that the original gymnasts performed their routines. Used in its comprehensive sense as a means of developing physical fitness, gymnastics is defined as a series or defined set of physical exercises, each intended to build and to illustrate stamina, strength, balance, and coordination. Gymnastics exercises are performed on a flat surface such as a floor, with some types of gymnastics maneuvers intended for execution upon specially designed equipment.

Gymnastics was accepted as one of the fundamentals to the attainment of complete physical fitness as that concept evolved into the broader notion of physical education. It is for this reason that the terms "gymnasium" and "gym class" came to represent all manner of physical training and activity. Germany's John Basedow (1723–1790) is generally recognized as the original proponent of gymnastics as a part of the education of young people. Basedow's influence extended throughout Europe into the 1800s, as gymnastics clubs dedicated to physical fitness principles were established. Vaulting over a stationary object and complicated floor based exercises were popular. Frederick Jahn (1778–1852), the inventor of now standard pieces of gymnastics equipment such as the pommel horse and the parallel bars helped to spur the development of gymnastics in the Untied States. The Turnverein, a form of German gynmnastics club, was well established throughout the eastern United States by 1900.

Competitive gymnastics was formalized into a broadly based administrative structure through the formation of the Federation Internationale de Gymnastiques (FIG) in 1881. Today there are affiliated national gymnastics associations in virtually every country in the world. FIG sets all standards for the competitions staged in both the Olympic Games as well as the annual World gymnastics championships and regional competitions, such as the European championships and those organized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Gymnastics has a worldwide following—the television ratings for Olympic gymnastics are among the highest of any sport. Like figure skating, gymnastics has an aesthetic as well as an athletic appeal. Olga Korbut, the Russian gymnastics star of the 1972 Olympics; Nadia Comenich, the Bulgarian athlete who superseded Korbut in terms of international renown at the 1976 Games; and American Mary Lou Retton in the 1980s, are three such examples.

FIG also has international authority over a broad range of sports disciplines that are defined as gymnastics. Artistic gymnastics is the competition conducted in men's, women's, and team categories, encompassing most of the movements popularly associated with the sport of gymnastics generally. Rhythmic gymnastics is a women's only event, where the competitors move in a series of floor exercises set to music, employing demonstrative aids such as balls and ribbons in the flow of the routines. Trampoline is a sport that has been developed for international competition since the 1980s, where the athletes perform pre-determined aerial maneuvers, in a scoring concept similar to freestyle skiing or diving. Artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and trampoline are all Olympic sports.

FIG also supervises sports derived from traditional gymnastics, including sport aerobics, sport acrobatics, and general gymnastics—a form of group gymnastics activity. These sports are organized into various forms of competition, and each enjoys a regional as opposed to an international appeal.

Artistic gymnastics is the best known and the most popular of the gymnastics variants. Men's gymnastics includes six distinct specialties: floor exercises, movements that involve tumbling and other forms of dynamic movement in a finite area; vault, a fixed apparatus over which the athlete leaps with the aid of a springboard, executing one of a variety of movements from the top of the apparatus before landing; pommel horse, a stationary object with specialized hand grips on which the gymnast performs a set routine of movements; the horizontal bar (sometimes referred to as the high bar), a fixed apparatus on which the gymnast performs a routine of various spins and strength exercises; the parallel bars, a structure on which the athlete uses strength, balance and coordination to move along the bars in a choreographed routine; the rings, suspended above the floor, on which the gymnast suspends himself through out the routine, using the rings to execute flips and other coordinated movements for a set period.

The women's gymnastics competition is constituted with different events. Women perform the floor exercises and the vault event in a fashion similar to that of the men. The additional women's competitive events are the balance beam, where the gymnast performs a series of movements on a sprung wooden beam 4 in (10 cm) wide and 16ft long (5m), set approximately 4 ft (125 cm) from the floor surface, and the uneven bars, where the athlete moves from bar to bar in a series of twists and movements dependent upon the athlete's ability to control the direction of the centripetal forces that are generated by the circular rotations of the gymnasts body as she moves from bar to bar through the routine.

In gymnastics competition, individual athletes are scored on each apparatus, as well as on a cumulative basis for the individual as well as the team. Like sports such as diving or figure skating, the judging of gymnastics is subjective, with a complex series of guidelines developed by FIG with the relative degree of difficulty of each maneuver attempted by the competitor factored into the score. Nadia Comenich, at age 14, was the first competitor in Olympics competition to receive a perfect score from all judges in an event.

No other sport places a greater premium upon the development and maintenance of a strength to weight ratio in the athlete. Every gymnastics event will require intense training directed to explosive and yet graceful, coordinated movement. As a general biomechanical proposition, the lighter the body mass coupled with the maximum amount of lean muscle mass and muscle strength, the more dynamic and more powerful the athlete. Examples with in gymnastics that emphasize this proposition most profoundly are the men's rings event and the women's balance beam. In each discipline, for significant periods of time, the athlete must balance their entire body weight with both precision (as is mandated by the scoring system) and muscular strength.

For these reasons, gymnasts tend to be relatively short, slim, muscular individuals, with significant fast twitch fiber present in their musculoskeletal structure. Fast twitch fibers, those that respond most quickly to the nerve impulses that emanate from the brain, are essential to promote the speedy reaction times and powerful movements required in every gymnastics routine. Examples of fast twitch muscle activity are prominent in the run up to the commencement of a series of floor exercises, and the approach to the vault, both of which are executed at a sprint. The greater the amount of speed that the gymnast can generate at the opening of each of these exercises, the greater speed with which each will be executed.

Gymnastics is a sport where balance on a stable surface such as the floor and balance in the air are equally valued. Core body strength is a very important muscular strength component for the gymnast. Core strength, the seamless and interrelated power of the abdominal, lumbar (low back), groin, and gluteal muscles is the body's chief mechanism in the establishment of a strong and stable position as the gymnast moves across the floor or in the air in relation to all of the gymnastics apparatus.

Strength coupled with flexibility is the most important overall physical requirement in gymnastics. Flexibility, which promotes optimal range of motion in the joints of the athlete, is essential to both produce the most efficient movement, as well as protecting the athlete to a degree from the rigors of the sport, particularly the repetitive nature of both training and competition. Gymnasts, who are extremely vulnerable to over-use injuries, use a variety of sophisticated stretching exercises to enhance flexibility and to limit injury risk.

Gymnasts are exposed to a wide variety of injuries, from those that result from falls from the various pieces of gymnastic equipment, to a wide variety of sprains and muscular strains occurring during the execution of a routine. Ankle and foot injuries, resulting from the absorption of landing forces, are the most common gymnastics injury. The essence of gymnastics training is repetition, and as with any sport, the repeated execution of a physical movement will create repeated stress upon the musculoskeletal structure. Chronic strains, sprains, and recurrent injuries such as shin splints (the micro tearing of the fascia muscle of the lower portion of the shin) and stress fractures, particularly in the lower legs, are relatively common.

The energy requirements in gymnastics are significant. Gymnasts frequently train for over two hours per day, and the proper gymnastics diet must include both the components of the traditional "balanced diet," as well as any dietary supplements to ensure that the body can restore itself.

The training of young gymnasts has attracted controversy throughout the world. Young athletes, beginning at ages 6 or earlier, are often encouraged to join formal gymnastics clubs. Gymnastics is a sport where, particularly among its female participants, the ideal gymnastic frame is very slender (often under 110 lb [50 kg] for women). Female gymnasts are often regarded as not having a competitive career after they have entered their early 20s. The pursuit of athletes with a so-called ideal gymnastics body has placed a significant number of female gymnasts at risk of engaging in the poor nutritional habits and physical stresses that create the female triad—ammorhea (loss or interruption of the normal menstrual cycle), eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia are the most common), and subsequent osteoporosis, a loss of bone density most often related to a lack of calcium in the female diet. Eating disorders are the most dangerous of the problems attributable to a desire to stay within a particular body type for gymnastics. The athlete's self perception, or the direction from a coach, either expressed or implied, can frequently trigger this often destructive psychological condition.

see also Balance training and proprioception; Gymnastics injuries; Gymnastics landing forces; Motor Control; Stretching and flexibility.


views updated May 18 2018


Once an exercise for warriors preparing for battle, gymnastics has evolved into one of the most avidly followed Olympic events and a popular conditioning activity for all ages. Though male gymnasts are admired for their strength and skill, it is largely women's gymnastics that captivates audiences and inspires thousands of children to take up the sport.

Derived from the Greek word gymnos, which means naked, the combination of acrobatics and tumbling that we call gymnastics was devised by the Greeks as an exercise to balance the mind and body and learn skills useful in battle. Other ancient cultures, notably the Chinese, Indians, and Persians, performed similar conditioning exercises. It was in the early nineteenth century that the benefits of gymnastics were popularized in Europe when Friedrich Jahn established Turnvereins, or gymnastics clubs, all over Germany. American clubs in the style of Jahn's clubs were opened in Cincinnati in 1848 and in St. Louis in 1865.

By 1881 the European Gymnastics Federation was established in Belgium (renamed International Gymnastics Federation or FIG in 1921), and gymnastics became an Olympic event in 1896. Women's Olympic gymnastics began in 1928. Olympic events involve performing athletic feats of leaping, swinging, and tumbling on a variety of apparatus, judged on the basis of the Code of Points, established and regularly upda ted by the FIG. For men, there are six types of official apparatus: the floor exercise, the pommel horse, the still rings, the vault, the horizontal bar, and the parallel bars. Women do the floor exercise as well, along with the vault, the uneven parallel bars, and the balance beam.

Gymnastics underwent an enormous leap in popularity in the early 1970s. In the 1972 Olympics, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut dazzled both judges and spectators around the world with her athletic and aggressive style, performing a back flip on the balance beam for the first time ever. In 1976, Romanian Nadia Comaneci became the first person in history to earn perfect scores for her gymnastic routines.

The dramatic performances of these skilled athletes and many others created a shift in perspective for women's gymnastics. No longer a demonstration of graceful motion juxtaposed with the male gymnast's display of power and strength, women's gymnastics became a powerful sport in its own right. With the new respect for women gymnasts came a surge in the popularity of gymnastics in the general population. In 1972, fifteen thousand amateur athletes learned acrobatics and tumbling at gymnastics clubs in the United States. A decade later there are one hundred fifty thousand, and the number continues to increase considerably after each summer Olympics. Whether it is Olympic hopefuls training to compete or children learning to tumble at the local community center, gymnastics has taken its place in American society.

With this new popularity comes a certain amount of worry. Competitive gymnastics can be a grueling sport, causing injuries to muscle, bone, and ligament. A 1990 study of Swedish male gymnasts found they had as many degenerated disks in their spines as the average sixty-five-year-old man. While male gymnasts reach their peak of performance in their late teens and early twenties, female gymnasts peak while they are still children of thirteen to sixteen, before bones and other bodily structures are fully formed. Some concerned trainers and parents refer to the "female athlete triad" of eating disorders, delayed onset of menstruation, and premature osteoporosis, which endanger female athletes who begin their careers at increasingly younger ages. It is not uncommon for young gymnasts to begin their training at age five and to work out for five hours a day by the time they are teenagers. Such demanding schedules combined with super-competitive coaching have pushed young gymnasts to injury and beyond. Small slips while practicing flips and leaps have resulted in several cases of paralysis, the most famous being Sang Lan of China, who fell in a practice session during the 1998 Olympics, breaking her neck.

In response to concerns about the physical and emotional effects of competition on very young girls, the Olympic Committee has changed its rules, making sixteen the minimum age for Olympic teams. Parents and many coaches have also tried to refocus the sport on fun and personal accomplishment and away from the intense competition that drives athletes to risk injury and permanent damage.

Gymnastics continues to grow more popular, especially among young girls, who find needed role models in the strong young women who fly so gracefully through the air at the Olympics. The parameters of the sport keep expanding. When Olga Korbut performed her back somersault on the balance beam in 1972, the move was revolutionary. In less than three decades, ten year olds could do it in gymnastics class, and elite gymnasts in competition perform three back flips in a row. Perhaps that is the real romance of such athletic displays: the ability of a vulnerable young girl to increase the limits of human physical achievement.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Kauffman, Helen, and Matthew Smith. "Well, Doc, Ya Ain't No Nadia Comaneci … (Gymnastics Is the Latest White-Collar Rage)." Los Angeles Magazine. Vol. 25, May 1980, 115.

Silverstein, Herma. Mary Lou Retton and the New Gymnasts. New York, F. Watts, 1985.

Smither, Graham Buxton. Behind the Scenes of Gymnastics. London, New York, Proteus Press, 1980.


views updated May 23 2018

gymnastics is the practice of athletic exercises for the development of the body, especially those exercises performed with apparatus such as rings, pommel horse, bars, and balance beam. Although gymnastics was likely practised in ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures, its roots for Western culture lie in ancient Greece, hence the derivation from the Greek word gymnazein, which literally means ‘to train naked’ (gymnos: naked). The early Greeks practised gymnastics in preparation for war, as jumping, running, discus throwing, wrestling, and boxing helped produce the strong, supple muscles necessary for hand-to-hand combat. Because military training was necessary for the production of Greek citizens, and because the Greeks viewed the training both of the body and the mind as inextricably linked, gymnastics became a central component of ancient education. Gymnasia, the buildings with open-air courts where such training took place, evolved into schools where youths learned gymnastics, rhetoric, music, and mathematics. Gymnastics also provided a way to train for the athletic festivals around Greece, the most famous of which was the Olympic Games, held every four years from 776 bce until 393 ce.

With the end of the Olympic Games, Greek-style gymnastics training declined, not to be revived until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Western Europe. With this revival came a concomitant revival of the corporeal values associated with gymnastics: upper body strength, musculature, elasticity, litheness, flexibility, poise, and equilibrium. Underpinning the re-emergence of gymnastic training is the same assumption held by the Greeks, that a healthy body and a healthy mind are intimately connected.

In the mid 1800s Friedrich Jahn did much to re-introduce gymnastics into German education and became known as the ‘father of gymnastics’. Jahn introduced the horizontal bar, parallel bars, side horse with pommels, balance beam, ladder, and vaulting bucks. His gymnastics program was promoted in Turner societies, clubs established to develop self discipline and physical strength in the name of national unity. In Sweden, Pehr Henrik Ling followed closely behind Jahn, systematizing Swedish pedagogic gymnastics with a strong emphasis on the medical benefits.

In the early nineteenth century, educators in the US imported German and Swedish gymnastics training programs. With the American integration of gymnastics into the general education curriculum, its connections to nationalism and military training re-emerged stronger than ever. By the early twentieth century, the armed services published drill manuals featuring all manner of gymnastic exercises, drills which, according to the US Army Manual of Physical Drill (1910), provided proper instruction for ‘a body of young and active men’ and were thus ‘all important’. The US Navy's Gymnastics and Tumbling, published in 1944, asserts that ‘Gymnastics and tumbling contribute in large measure to the demands of a democracy at war.’ Nonetheless, as military activity moved away from hand-to-hand combat and toward fighter planes and contemporary computer-controlled weapons, gymnastics training as the mind/body connection, so important for the Greek, German, and Swedish educational traditions, began to lose force. As a result, physical and intellectual training in schools are now almost completely separate; although in Germany the term ‘gymnasium’ still persists as the term for a place of secondary education, the gymnasium is more commonly cordoned off for physical training, while the privileged intellectual education takes place in traditional classrooms. The mind/body split is more pervasive than ever.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the powerful emergence of a strand of gymnastics, similar in form to gymnastic training for educational and military purposes, but practised for different ends. The first Modern Olympic games in 1896 featured competitive gymnastic events for men, which have been included in every Olympics since. Men's gymnastics events are scored on an individual and team basis, and presently include the floor exercise, horizontal bar, parallel bars, rings, side horse (also called pommel horse), vaulting, and combined exercises (the all-around), which combines the scores of the other six events. Combined exercises for women were first held in 1928, and the 1952 Olympics featured the first full regime of events for women. Women's gymnastic events include balance beam, uneven parallel bars, combined exercises, floor exercises, vaulting, and rhythmic sportive gymnastics. Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, and Mary Lou Retton have helped popularize women's competitive gymnastics, making it one of the most watched Olympic events as they performed difficult manœuvres on some of the very apparatus developed for bodily training by Friedrich Jahn in the eighteenth century.

Debra Hawhee

See also acrobatics; exercise; sport.


views updated Jun 27 2018


The word gymnastics, the practice of which extends back thousands of years, has been used to refer to activities ranging from simple movements to extraordinary acrobatic feats. Gymnastik für die Jugend (1793), written by Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths, is often cited as laying the foundations for a comprehensive system of exercises and as well as today's competitive sport. Drawing upon Jean-Jacques Rousseau, contemporary physicians, and classical sources, GutMuths (a teacher at the Schnepenthal Philanthropinum) identified three components of physical education: manual arts; social games; gymnastic exercises, which included wrestling, running, swimming, leaping, balancing, and climbing. His ideas had a considerable influence on Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who in 1810 began meeting pupils in a wooded area near their school. There they engaged in a variety of activities that included exercising on rudimentary apparatus. Jahn's Die Deutsche Turnkunst (1816) included sections devoted to the parallel bars, vaulting, and other movements that became the core of the German system, which made extensive use of equipment. The Swedish system (designed by Per Henrik Ling in the early 1800s) used comparatively little equipment and emphasized posture, sequential progression, proper breathing, and specific exercises for each portion of the body. Its educational and medical branches were adopted, and adapted, in many countries. Debates about which system was better were often intense and continued until sports became dominant in the curriculum.

Nineteenth-century teachers could draw upon small books like James H. Smart's Manual of School Gymnastics to provide classroom calisthenic drills. Turners (members of German gymnastic societies) who arrived in the United States following the 1848 German Revolution campaigned vigorously to make German gymnastics the basis of the curriculum. Outside the schools, Turnvereins (German gymnastic societies) and Sokols (Czech gymnastic associations) organized their own events. Others held that the Swedish system, introduced into the Boston public schools in the 1890s, was more appropriate, especially for children and females. Books like Wilbur Bowen's The Teaching of Elementary School Gymnastics (1909) set forth the strengths of each. In the 1920s Danish gymnastics (which offered more variety) were introduced into the American curriculum. Some attention also was given to stunts and tumbling (such as the forward roll and the handspring).

Competitive gymnastics consists of two forms: Modern Rhythmic Gymnastics, which uses balls, hoops, and similar light equipment; and Artistic (Olympic) Gymnastics. Team competition for women took place at the 1928 Olympics, but it was not until the 1952 Games in Helsinki that individual competition began. Television coverage of the 1960 Rome Olympics resulted in an upsurge of interest in a number of countries. Following the performances of diminutive Olga Korbut in 1972 thousands of young girls in the United States joined the rapidly growing number of private gymnastic clubs and became involved in the Junior Olympic program. Gymnastics requires strength, flexibility, coordination, discipline, and willingness to practice long hours. The nature of the apparatus is such that short stature and a light body is an advantage. Both the age and size of competitive gymnasts has been decreased as the sport became more competitive. Although many youngsters enjoy the challenges, and certainly the thrill of victory, considerable concern has been expressed about the effects of intense training on their bodies and their psyches.

See also: Sports; Title IX and Girls' Sports.


Cochrane, Tuovi Sappinen. 1968. International Gymnastics for Girls and Women. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Gerber, Ellen. W. 1971. Innovators and Institutions in Physical Education. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger.

Goodbody, John. 1982. The Illustrated History of Gymnastics. London: Stanley Paul.

Ryan, Joan. 1995. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. New York: Doubleday.

internet resource

USA Gymnastics Online. Available from <>.

Roberta Park


views updated May 21 2018

gym·nas·tics / jimˈnastiks/ • pl. n. [also treated as sing.] exercises developing or displaying physical agility and coordination. The modern sport of gymnastics typically involves exercises on uneven bars, balance beam, floor, and vaulting horse (for women), and horizontal and parallel bars, rings, floor, and pommel horse (for men). ∎  other physical or mental agility of a specified kind: these vocal gymnastics make the music unforgettable.


views updated Jun 08 2018

gymnastics Multidisciplined sport requiring suppleness, strength and poise in a variety of regulated athletic exercises. Men and women compete separately in individual and team events. Men perform in six events: vault, parallel bars, horizontal bars, pommel horse, rings, and floor exercises. Women perform in four events: vault, balance beam, asymmetrical bars, and floor exercises. Exercises are rated in terms of difficulty, and points awarded for technical skills and artistry. World championships began in 1950, and women's gymnastics became an Olympic sport in 1952.