Gymnastics has existed for more than 2,000 years, but has evolved heavily over time. In this article we’ll take you through the history of gymnastics. The way it looks today is very different from how gymnastics started out.
Brief History of the Origins of Gymnastics
Gymnastics started as ancient civilizations doing strength and acrobatic exercises. The word gymnastics comes from the Greek words “gymnos” and “gymnazo” meaning roughly to train, to exercise naked.
Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths, a German teacher and educator, is considered the great grandfather of gymnastics. In 1793 he published a textbook which was later translated to English as “Gymnastics for Youth: or a Practical Guide to Healthful and Amusing Exercises for the use of Schools”.
A fellow German, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, is known as the father of gymnastics. He was a member of the Prussian army in the early 1800s. After a battle in which the Prussian army was defeated, he came up with the idea of improving morale by developing physical and mental strength through gymnastics. He opened the first Turnplatz, or open air gymnasium in 1811. Parallel Bars, rings and high bar were practiced at this gym.
Most of the early training was focused on physical health and fitness.
Gymnastics Organizes Internationally
In 1881 gymnastics became an “organized sport” when the Bureau of the European Gymnastics Federation, which would later become the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG,) was formed. FIG is the current international gymnastics governing body. Gymnastics was becoming more popular and was included in the first “modern” Olympic Games in 1896. At this time, the gymnastics events were different than they are today. In fact, they included some events that are currently part of Track and Field. Some of the events competed were men’s horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings, vault, high jumping, rope climbing and running. Track and Field events didn’t disappear from the sport of gymnastics until 1954. Women weren’t allowed to compete at Olympic gymnastic events until the 1920s.
Gymnastics Organizes in the US
The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) became the first formal governing body for gymnastics in the United State in 1883. In 1970, a separate entity just for gymnastics was formed, the United States Gymnastics Federation, now known as USA Gymnastics. Today USA Gymnastics is the main gymnastics governing body with its own rules, but some gyms and gymnasts compete under a different set of AAU gymnastic rules.
Gymnastics as We Know It
At the 1956 Olympic Games, the gymnastics events for both men and women became like what we know today as Artistic Gymnastics. Women competed the four events: Vault, Uneven Bars, Balance Beam and the Floor Exercise. Men also competed the events we have today: Floor Exercise, Parallel Bars, Horizontal Bar, Pommel Horse, Rings and Vault.
Early Gymnastics Prowess from the Soviet Union
Since gymnastics basically originated in Germany, it’s no surprise that the Germans showed dominance early. They won the team gold at the 1936 Olympic Games. But after that, the Soviet Union quickly took over in shaping modern gymnastics history.
The Soviet Union set a precedent early. They performed extremely difficult gymnastics routines with great discipline and artistry. And because of that, they dominated the Olympic team competition between 1952 and 1992. They won the team gold medal at every Olympic games they attended during that time period (The Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics in 1984). Other countries continuously on the leader board during this time period were other Eastern European countries, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany.
In the 1970s, gymnastics really grew in popularity due to television coverage of the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Olga Korbut, a gymnast from the Soviet Union, was the star of the 1972 Olympics. She won both the Beam and Floor Exercise gold medals, helping her team win a gold medal.
At the 1976 Olympics, gymnastics history was made when Nadia Comaneci, a Romanian gymnast, received the first perfect score. Her coach was Bela Károlyi.
Bela and Marta Károlyi’s Influence on Gymnastics in the US
It would be impossible to talk about the history of gymnastics in the US and not discuss Bela and Márta Károlyi. Bela Károlyi defected to the US in 1981, from Romania, and become a huge influence on American gymnastics along with his wife, Márta. After Bela Károlyi moved to the US, he was invited to be an investor in a Houston, TX gymnastics gym. The gym ran into financial problems, and the Károlyi’s bought the gym. His fame as “Nadia Comaneci’s coach” attracted talented gymnasts to his gym. He was back at the Olympics in 1984 as Mary Lou Retton’s coach; she won the individual all-around gold medal. In 1988, he was named head coach of the US Women’s Gymnastics Team.
He became the coach to train with in the US if you wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. At the 1991 World Championships, four of the six gymnasts on the US Women’s team were trained by Károlyi, and the other two were trained by ex-Károlyi gym club coaches. The 1992 Olympics showed his domination again, when Károlyi was head coach, five of the seven-gymnast team were trained by either him or one of his protégés.
1996 Olympics and the Magnificent Seven
The 1996 US Olympic team was known as the Magnificent Seven. The seven members of the team were Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps. Both Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug trained under Károlyi.
Up to this time, the team competition at the Olympics had been dominated by the Russians and had never been won by the US. At the 1996 team competition, the US was competing against Russian, Romanian and Ukranian teams. Going into the final rotation the US had a .897 point lead over the Russian team. The US could win their first ever team gold medal as long as they didn’t collapse on their last event, Vault. The first four vaulters performed decent vaults, with the fifth vaulter Dominique Moceanu falling twice. The last vaulter was Kerri Strug. She performed her first vault, landed it, but in the process hurt her ankle. Strug needed to land a second vault to mathematically clinch the gold. She managed to perform the second vault on her hurt ankle, stuck it, saluted the judges and almost immediately collapsed to her knees.
One of the most memorable and famous moments of the 1996 Olympics was Károlyi carrying Strug to the podium to accept her goal medal. She had become a national sports hero by performing on her hurt ankle to guarantee an American gold medal.
Bela Károlyi retired from coaching gymnastics after the 1996 Olympics. However, that was not it for him and his wife’s influence on US gymnastics history.
After the success of the US gymnastics team at the 1996 Olympic games, USA gymnastics lost traction. The US left both the 1997 and 1999 World Championships without a single medal.
Bela Károlyi came out of retirement to try to pull a struggling US gymnastics program out of its lull, with his hiring as National Team Coordinator in 1999. As the coordinator, Károlyi required team members to attend grueling camps at his Texas gymnastics ranch. Some gymnasts spoke out about the grueling and frequent nature of these camps and his coaching style. After he failed to produce a medal for the US at the 2000 Olympics, the title of National Team Coordinator was handed over to his wife, Márta.
Márta Károlyi’s approach seems to be slightly softer and more acceptable to coaches and gymnasts. She remained the National Team Coordinator for many years.
The 2000 Olympics and the Age Controversy
At the 2000 Olympics, the Romanians and Russians continued their gymnastics excellence, winning the team all around gold and silver, respectively. At the time, the Chinese placed third in the team competition. However, in 2000 they were stripped of their bronze medal and it was awarded to the US.
The Chinese were stripped of their medal because they lied about the age of one of the gymnasts on their team, Dong Fangxiao. Fangxiao was listed as 17 years old in 2000. It came out in 2010 that she had lied about her age in 2000 and she was actually 14 at the time.
When FIG first set an age requirement for the sport of gymnastics, the age was 14. But early gymnastics champions were not that young; they were usually in their 20s. A Hungarian gymnast won gold medals at the 1956 Olypmics at the age of 35. There were several early Soviet gymnasts winning medals throughout their 20s. However, by the 1970s the age of gymnasts was decreasing. Younger gymnasts were more competitive against their older counter parts.
As the sport advanced in difficulty, there were concerns about the demands and effects of intense competitive gymnastics on young gymnasts. So in 1980, FIG raised the minimum age for gymnasts to compete in the Olympics from 14 to 15, and then in 1997 they raised it again from 15 to 16.
So the current rule for the minimum age that a gymnast can compete in the Olympics is that the gymnast must be at least 16 years or age or turning 16 within the calendar year to compete. This age rule applies to all senior-level events. Gymnasts have to prove their age with a valid passport issued by their country of residence.
Some argue that the age rule is no good for two reasons — that it keeps good gymnasts out of the sport, and that it is easy for countries to falsify gymnasts’ age.
After it was discovered that Dong Fangxiao had lied about her age, in 2010 the Chinese were stripped of their 2000 team bronze medal by the International Olympic Committee.
Carly Patterson Wins the Gold & Sets a Trend for the US
Carly Patterson started a wonderful trend for the US at the 2004 Olympics by winning the all-around gold medal. Since the 2004 Olympic games, the US has continued to win every women’s all-around gold, with Nastia Liukin in 2008 and Gabby Douglas in 2012.
Carly Patterson was the second American woman to win the all-around gold, but her milestone was even more significant because she was the first ever to win the Olympic all-around title in a non-boycotted Olympic Games. Mary Lou Retton was the first ever American woman to do so at the 1984 Olympics, but those games were boycotted by the Soviet Union. So Retton did not face the stiff competition from the Soviet gymnasts.
The following year at the 2008 Olympics, Nastia Liukin won the individual all-around gold, with her fellow American teammate Shawn Johnson taking the silver.
2012 Olympics and the Fierce Five
In 2012 the women’s gymnastics team won the second ever gold medal in the team competition for the United States. The five members of the gymnastics team, the “Fab Five” or the “Fierce Five” as they were nicknamed, were Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber. Gabby Douglas also won the women’s all around gold medal, continuing the trend Carly Patterson set in 2004.
2016 Olympic Games and the Final Five
The US Women’s Team won gold all-around at the 2016 Olympic Games. The team was led by Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, who both gave incredible performances and finished first and second all-around, respectively. The team called themselves the Final Five, referring to the impending retirement of Martha Károlyi.
History of Gymnastics Timeline
1793: Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths, considered to be the great grandfather of gymnastics, published the first gymnastics textbook.
1811: The first gymnasium was opened by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the father of gymnastics.
1881: The Bureau of the European Gymnastics Federation, which would later become the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) was formed.
1896: The first summer Olympics was held in Athens and gymnastics events were a part of the competition.
1928: Women were allowed to compete artistic gymnastics at the 1928 Summer Olympics held in Amsterdam.
1963: United States Gymnastics Federation, now known as USA Gymnastics, was formed.
1976: Nadia Comaneci received the first perfect score at the 1976 Olympics.
1984: Rhythmic gymnastics was added to the Olympics. Also Mary Lou Retton became the first American woman to win the Olympic all-around title.
1996: The Magnificent Seven, the 1996 US Olympic women’s gymnastics team, win the US’s first gold medal in the women’s team competition. The seven members were Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps.
1997: FIG raised the age requirement for gymnasts to compete at senior-level gymnastics events from 15 to 16.
1999: Trampoline and Tumbling joined USA Gymnastics.
2000: Trampoline made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Olympics.
2001: Due to safety concerns, the Vault table replaced the vault horse (basically a pommel horse with no handles) in gymnastics competition.
2002: United States Sports Acrobatics (USSA) merged with USA Gymnastics making Acro the fifth gymnastics discipline.
2004: Carly Patterson becomes the first American woman to win the Olympic all-around title in a non-boycotted Olympics.
2006: FIG introduced a new scoring system for women’s artistic gymnastics. Now the maximum score is no longer a 10.0. The new scoring system has two separate scores added together — a difficulty score, and an execution score. This scoring system is used at the Elite level in the US and in international competitions.
2012: The Fierce Five win the US’s second ever gold medal in the women’s team competition. The five members of the team were Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Weiber. Gabby Douglas became the first African American in Olympic history to win the Individual All Around title as well as the first American to win both the Individual All Around and Team gold in the same Olympics.
2013: The gymnastics levels changed from 6 compulsory levels and 4 optional levels, to 5 compulsory levels and 5 optional levels. Also in 2013, the Xcel program becomes a national program. The Xcel program is a great addition to the traditional Junior Olympic program due to its affordable competition experience and ability to retain athletes.
2016: The Final Five win the gold medal in the women’s team competition to defend their title and Simone Biles wins the All Around and was the only American to qualify for all 4 event finals.
2019: Simone Biles makes history again as she wins the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany and becomes the first female gymnast to win 21 medals in total (beating out Svetlana Khorkina who was the previous record holder with 20 World medals). Biles also performs a triple-double on floor exercise and a double-double tuck dismount on beam, becoming the first gymnast to compete and land those skills.
2020: The International Olympic Committee makes the decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in response to the coronavirus pandemic that affected the entire world.
As you can see from this history of gymnastics, the sport of gymnastics has been constantly evolving over time. Who knows what’s next!