As the world watches the team gymnastics event at the Tokyo Olympics today, with its spine-tingling vaults, flips and somersaults in midair, we have a debt to pay to the ancient Greeks, who formed the beginning of the history of gymnastics as we know it in modern times.
Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist who bowed out of the team competition on Tuesday but who may still add to her medal total in the all-around and individual apparatus events, is just the latest superstar in the gravity-defying sport, whose roots stretch, like so much else, back to Greece.
As we can see today in a strikingly beautiful and delightful fresco from Minoan civilization in Heraklion, Crete, young men competing with each other in feats of strength and agility are nothing new. The 15th-century BC fresco above shows three boys taking turns vaulting or doing handsprings over a running bull.
Some might say that this represents the earliest form of vaulting or even the pommel horse (pommel bull?), part of mankind’s eternal attempt to see who is the fastest, highest or strongest.
All organized sport as we know it in the western world began in the gymnasiums of ancient Greece, from which the discipline takes its very name. Gymnazein, which means “to exercise naked,” points to the fact that indeed, the young athletes would run, tumble, wrestle, lift weights, and of course swim, without clothing.
Ancient Greek thinkers believed that there could be no complete development of the mind without the accompanying exercise of the body.
According to records written at the time, the first athletic competitions in ancient Greece were instituted in 776 BC at Olympia, the religious site devoted to the worship of Zeus. They were so successful that by the sixth century BC other Panhellenic games in which all the Greek city-states would take part were held at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia as well.
Other competitions, including the Panathenaic games of Athens, were modeled on these four periodoi (circuit games).
Some of the events once under the umbrella of gymnastics such as boxing, wrestling and foot racing, which appeared prominently in the ancient Olympic Games, are now their own sports.
The Spartans, of course, saw all athletic activity as a way to further prowess in warfare; the Romans were no different, and when the Ancient Greek city-states went under the rule of the Roman Empire, this was the mindset that prevailed.
The Olympics and other Ancient Greek games continued to take place under the Romans but they were eventually banned under Emperor Theodosius I as they were part of pagan rites. Roman soldiers were known to have practiced many of the exercises that we see in gymnastics today, as a way to be more efficient in their movements and their warfare.
But with the fall of the Roman Empire, gymnastics as we know them fell into obscurity in Europe, but tumbling, as seen in the floor exercises that we see in today’s Olympics, survived as part of the repertoire of traveling troupes dancers, acrobats and jugglers throughout the continent.
Modern gymnastics as we knew them in Ancient Greece and as we know them today first re-emerged during the years of the Enlightenment, when Europe again experienced movement and physical exercise as part of an individuals’ overall education.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel “Émile; ou, de l’éducation,” (Emile; or, On Education), published in 1762; is what many historians believe sparked wholesale educational reform in Europe, which utilized the wisdom of the ancient Greeks in combining a healthy body with a healthy mind.
Rousseau’s seminal ideas bringing back these ancient truths inspired activists in Germany, who started opening schools known as “Philanthropinum” in the late 1700s. These new gymnasia offered a wide range of outdoor activities harkening back to the days of ancient Greece, including gymnastics.
This movement created a man who is called the “grandfather of gymnastics,” German educator Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuth, who published the first written guide to the sport in 1793.
His work, “Gymnastic fuer die Jugend,” or Gymnastics for Youth, outlined two forms of gymnastics: the natural, or utilitarian, geared toward developing strength, and what he called the “artificial,” which meant the more artistic type of gymnastics that we see today in our competitions.
In a revised 1804 edition of his work, GutsMuths alluded to the origin of gymnastics in ancient Greece, stating “Our gymnastics adheres closely to the culture of the intellect; walks harmoniously hand in hand with it and thereby ideally resembles the pedagogical skills that were practiced by the young men in the Academy of Athens.”
GutsMuths passed on the gymnastic torch to Prussian educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who was also a former soldier.
His first outdoor gymnasium, called the Turnplatz, was located in Berlin, opening in 1811. Its curriculum quickly became popular among young, middle-class students.
The “Turnverein” movement that Jahn initiated took its name from the German words turen (“to practice gymnastics”) and Verein (“club, union”). Practitioners known as “Turners” used apparatus much like those we see today in schools, gymnastics clubs and competitions, including the pommel horse, parallel bars, and even the balance beam and horizontal bar.
A close relative of gymnastics, calisthenics, was popularized as part of the Sokol movement, which had been inspired by the Turnverein schools but were established in Prague during the early 1860s.
The Encyclopedia Britannica calls the Sokol’s use of mass calisthenics “a means of promoting communal spirit and physical fitness,” which utilized gymnastics and other exercises to “develop strength, litheness, alertness and courage.”
Like so many other things, European immigrants brought the concept of modern gymnastics to the United States in the mid-19th century. Soon, Turnverein and Sokol clubs were established far and wide in the New World.
One important American gymnastics pioneer was Dudley Allen Sargent, a physician and educator who taught the sport at several American universities from the 1860s all the way through the 1910s.
He made seminal advances in gymnastics, inventing more than 30 different types of apparatuses for the burgeoning sport.
Gymnastics was becoming so popular that there needed to be a regulating body for the sport; in 1881 the Bureau of the European Gymnastics Federation, an early form of today’s International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) was formed as a result.
Just fifteen years later, in 1898 at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, male gymnasts competed in six individual events closely akin to those we see today, including the horizontal and parallel bars, pommel horse, rings, rope climbing and vault.
There were also two team events. Germany, the original home of the modern recreation of gymnastics, dominated the events, with its athletes earning five gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes.
However, the parameters of the sport were still somewhat fluid, with gymnasts competing in events that are more akin to those in track and field today — incredibly, including pole vaulting to the long jump.
History of gymnastics changed for good in modern times with standardization
Beginning in 1928, however, the sport began to be standardized into the form that we enjoy today, although some events, including the floor exercise, were added subsequently.
That year also marked one of the greatest changes in gymnastics history as women were allowed to compete for the very first time ever in history.
A total of eight gymnastics events were contested at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. This also marked the end of the rope climbing and sidehorse vault events as part of the Olympics.
To allay the common fears of the time that athletic competition would make women masculine, the FIG designed women’s modern gymnastics “in a way that would showcase femininity” and demonstrate that participating in sports was not only safe, but could also be beneficial to their overall health, according to Georgia Cervin, a New Zealand–based sports scholar and the author of “Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell from Grace.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, she states that this was when it was decided that the gymnastics we know today look the way that they do. “What they’re going to reward (with high scores) align with traditional female values,” she states, which means “soft, passive movements” exemplifying the feminine traits of flexibility, beauty and grace.
Today, female gymnasts compete for individual and team all-around titles in four separate events, including vault, uneven bars, beam and floor exercise; male gymnasts compete in six events, including the floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bars.
Sports historians note that interest in gymnastics rose to a fever pitch during the Cold War, when the Olympics first began to be viewed as another cultural battleground between Eastern Europe and the West.
Eastern European athletes rose to great prominence by the 1950s, inspiring the US and other Western nations to take gymnastics more seriously and dedicate more resources to their own programs. The United States Gymnastics Federation, which is now known as USA Gymnastics, was created in 1963 as the governing body for the ever-growing sport.
Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina still holds the Olympic record for gymnastics medals, with 14 individual medals and 4 team medals.
Another notable gymnastics figure of the midcentury was Agnes Keleti, who rose above the horrors of the Holocaust to win not just one but four gold medals at the Olympics in rhythmic gymnastics in 1952 and 1956. Winning ten Olympic medals overall and later becoming a coach for Israel, her story stands alone for not only the personal strength she possesses but her sheer love of gymnastics.
Cathy Rigby, a gymnast who won hearts and fame as the US’ first international winner of a World Championship medal, in Yugoslavia in 1970, earned a silver on the balance beam.
However, Soviet athlete Olga Korbut, her equal in both gymnastics ability and a warmth which easily charmed the public, was the sport’s first major international superstar. The tiny 17-year-old with a face that was often wreathed in smiles won over the world during the 1972 Munich Games.
Known for her incredible agility and exceptionally graceful routines, Korbut was the first woman to perform a backward somersault on the beam in an international competition. She received the then-unprecedented score of 9.8 out of 10 for successfully executing a backflip on the uneven bars in a daring feat that is now banned in the Olympics because it is far too dangerous.
Korbut also participated in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal but even her routines were outdone by the next gymnastics phenom, 14-year-old Nadia Comăneci of Romania, who famously earned the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics Olympic history for her perfect uneven bars routine.
Since no one had ever came close to scoring a perfect ten before, the scoreboard was not set up to display that many digits, so it showed 1.00 — leading Comaeci to think that there had simply been a malfunction, so she simply moved on to the next apparatus.
The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, which were boycotted by the then-dominant Soviet team, allowed the United States to gain a foothold into gymnastics, as the men’s team won the country its first gold medal in the all-around competition.
Mary Lou Retton, a perky 16-year-old whose idol was Comăneci, won the individual all-around title at the LA Olympics, making her the first American female to win an individual Olympic gymnastics medal of any kind.
The US continued its gymnastics dominance in 1996, when the women’s team, called the “Magnificent Seven,” won America’s first women’s all-around title. Among the notable names from those Games were the 18-year-old Keri Strug, who won the team its first-place finish by vaulting on an ankle that was already injured, and the 19-year-old Dominique Dawes, who became the first African American female to win an individual Olympic medal in gymnastics.
The Magnificent Seven 1996 team, from left to right: Amanda Borden, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug and Shannon Miller, shown here in a screenshot from YouTube.
Significantly, that 1996 Atlanta team was among the first classes of gymnasts to benefit from 1972’s Title IX, which upon its enactment finally created a level playing field for young female athletes by ensuring that they could compete equally in public school sports.
The US dominance in gymnastics has continued to the present day; in 2004, 16-year-old Carly Patterson became the first American female to win an individual all-around gold medal in an Olympics that was not boycotted.
And in every Summer Olympics since that year, American gymnasts, including Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles in 2008, 2012 and 2016, respectively have earned that coveted title, with Biles nabbing four golds all by herself.
This year, after she withdrew from the all-around team competition and her future in the individual events is unknown at present, the streak was broken, with the Russian Olympic Committee team taking the gold and the US silver on Tuesday.
Just two months ago Biles had made history as the first woman to successfully perform a Yurchenko double pike in competition. Only one other gymnast — a male — has ever performed this exceptionally daring move in competition.
Universally considered the greatest female gymnast of all time, Biles was the first to complete at least four exceptionally difficult skills in competition, including a triple-double on floor and a double-double dismount on the balance beam.
As some have noted, Biles combines the grace and beauty of modern gymnastics with the strength and power prized in the earliest days of the sport in ancient Greece.