The history of gymnastics

At some point in all our school days we will have all taken part in some form of gymnastics activity through the schools system regardless if we are male or female. Gymnastics is one of the only sports that we all have some sort of traditional infinity with, whether you loved it or hated it, it is one of those sports that people can relate to and respect at the top class end of the sport. Gymnastics is one of the oldest sports in the world today, According to ‘The Superbook of Gymnastics’ by Brian Hayhurst the history of the sport goes back to the ancient Greeks and the year 776BC where it was classed as good training for the other sports such as wrestling and jumping, improving general fitness. The Greeks put heavy emphasis on physical fitness and saw gymnastics as a symbol of primordial male power and fecundity, their ancient state-built stadiums were like a modern academy of sport. For the Greeks sport was a male domain and women were not even allowed in the stadium, not like modern gymnastics where women dominate.

The decline of the Greek and Roman empires and with it the importance of physical exercise the skills of gymnastics were only kept alive for many centuries by performing acrobats as a form of entertainment. In 1881, Belgian Nicolas Cuperus, founded the Federation of International Gymnastics (F.I.G.) which brought together the various national bodies and different styles of gymnastics. Gymnastics became part of the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896, the events were male dominated as it was thought that women competing would be totally unacceptable, women did not compete until the Amsterdam games in 1928. In the sport of gymnastics today it is the women’s side of the sport that attracts all the interest and admiration making it one of the only competitive sports where the number of women participating outnumbers the men, making it one of the pioneering sports for equality and the representation of women as positive role models in the sporting world.

The turning point in gymnastics for the domination of women’s side of the sport came when the USSR took part in their first Olympics at Helsinki in 1952, where the Soviet women gymnasts were outstanding. This also marked a domination within the sport that still has not been broken today, the domination of Eastern block countries, in particular Russia and Romania, in the men’s and women’s disciplines. In resent years other countries have been able to achieve on the individual side of the sport but the Russian and Romanians have always been the dominant nations at every major event, always the sides to beat. The Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina was the dominant force in the sport for almost a decade winning a large number of European, World and Olympic titles but was not truly recognized by the public and did not become a household name because of the sports coverage in the 50’s and early 60’s. She is still the most decorated gymnast in history.

It was not until the 1970’s and the 1972 Munich Olympics, when the introduction of world wide television coverage, that the sport gained the aspirations of the world with the entrance of the most famous gymnast of the modern eire, Olga Korbut. Olga Korbut is the most known name in gymnastics she captivated the public, changing the straight faced look of the sport by showing emotion, cheeky smiles and a sense of enjoyment unseen before. Her performances at the 1972 Olympics opened the eyes of the public, women could now have a sport that would capture people’s attention and give the same fame and glory on the world scale as the male dominated sports of football, cricket and baseball have had. Girls the world over found a sport in which they could sparkle at a young age, clubs the world over had queues outside their doors and waiting list as long as your arm, all wanting to be like Olga, known as the ‘cinderella of the sport’.

The gymnasts continued to come from USSR at very high standards as they did from other Eastern European countries such as Romania, in the form of Nadia Comaneci. Nadia Comaneci hit the international scene at Wembley in 1975 at the age of 13, she emerged as the outright winner amongst very strong competition. Nadia became a dominant force in the sport scoring the first maximum 10 and winning many titles. The demand for Nadia to appear and her continued success together with the recognition that she brought her county lead to the Romanian federation having to build many more facilities to continue their domination at the top of the sport. Other household names followed from the USSR and Romania like Kim, Szabo and Bicherova, during the 80’s the emergence of other nations and in particular USA and China came into prominence as a result of Korbut’s influence in the sport. The Americans eventually came through as they produced their first Olympic champion in the form of Mary Lou Retton in 1984. The Americans remain the only western nation to win any World or Olympic event, all the others have gone to Eastern European countries or China since the second world war.

The most famous British female gymnasts from past years are Susan Dando, Annika Reeder and Lisa Mason. Britain has had success on the men’s side of the sport in the form of Neil Thomas who won Gold on the floor in the individual apparatus finals at the Commonwealth games and silver on the same piece at the 1994 World champs. Gymnastics has five main disciplines, men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics sports acrobatics and recently trampolining. All five events are now Olympic events and have full international status with World, European and Commonwealth championships.

To be a top class gymnast you require the grace and flexibility of a ballerina, the speed of a sprinter, the strength of a weight weightlifter, the balance of a tightrope walker together with the endurance of a swimmer and the bravery of no other sport known. Gymnasts at the highest level should be the perfect physical specimen, the most complete physical figure known to man.