What is gymnastics? Even those who watch the Olympic gymnastics competition every four years may possess little appreciation for the intricacies of the sport. As you’re watching the women’s gymnastics competition tonight at the London Olympics, here are some points to bear in mind.
A Brief History: From Naked Gymnasts to the Swinging Rings
Gymnastics famously reaches all the way back to ancient Greece, and the term gymnos (“naked”) refers — just as famously — to the fact that Greek gymnasts were naked gymnasts. For my straight male friends: don’t get too excited. There were no naked gymnasts of the female variety — the nude gymnasts were all men, and women were not even allowed to observe. Gymnastics referred broadly to anything from acrobatics to wrestling, and it was considered an essential part of a young man’s education, a means of forming not only a well trained body but a well trained mind, courageous and disciplined. Gymnastics was the heart of the ancient Greek Olympic Games and when Roman culture was ascendant, it innovated the use of a wooden “horse” instead of a live one and steered the sport toward military training purposes.
After Emperor Theodosius banned the then-corrupt Olympic Games in 393 AD, the sport disappeared. An Italian scholar looked back to the ancient “Art of Gymnastics” (Le Arte Gymnastica) in 1569, and three German physical educators in the early nineteenth century created exercises for boys and young men on specially designed pieces of apparatus. A Spanish Colonel introduced gymnastics in France for physical education, with early versions of the vault, the parallel bars (made from a ladder laid horizontally and stripped of its rungs) and the high bar. The Federation of International Gymnastics (FIG) was founded in France in 1881, and remains the international ruling body of the sport. Gymnastics was central to the first modern Olympic Games, and since there were no more nude gymnasts the sport was extended to women in the 1928 games in Amsterdam. By the mid-twentieth century the sport had left behind some of the more bizarre events (like rope-climbing) and the more dangerous ones (like the swinging rings).
In modern gymnastics, men and women perform on the floor and the vault. Women also compete on the uneven bars and the beam. Men, larger and with greater upper body strength (and a higher center of gravity), compete on the pommel horse, still rings, parallel bars and high bar. The most dangerous events are the beam and the high bar. The rings is the greatest test of strength for the men. The most intricate and technical events are the uneven bars for the women and the pommel horse and parallel bars for the men. Vault and floor test your sheer explosiveness, but also your “air sense” and control.
Gymnastics is the Greatest Olympic Sport
Yes, gymnasts tend to be vertically challenged. The taller, lankier and bulkier you become the less likely that you’re able to move your body as a single powerful unit in the ways that gymnastics requires. And yes, male gymnasts wear leotards. Alas.
However, there are no greater athletes in the world than gymnasts. Pound for pound, male and female, gymnasts stand among the strongest, most explosive, most coordinated athletes in the world. No other sport requires the same combination of extreme flexibility, perfect coordination and exceptional power, not to mention the extraordinary courage and strength of mind that are required to perform death- or at least major-injury-defying skills on a daily basis, and then compete them in front of thousands in the arena and millions at home.
I stand in awe of Michael Phelps. He’s the most decorated American Olympian ever, but he’s not by any stretch the greatest athlete. He has had to perfect four strokes, his dive, and his thrust from the wall. He does these same strokes over and over and over, for decades. He never has to learn a new skill. Runners perform the same movement over and over. Same with weight lifters, or archers, or shooters, and many other sports too require the athlete to perfect only a couple skills and movements.
A typical Olympic gymnast will compete 40-60 skills in a single round of competition — and on the way to learning those elite skills, he or she has had to learn hundreds, perhaps thousands of other skills. The skills he or she competes require very different techniques and abilities. Gymnastics is an extremely technical sport; learning a skill properly can take months. An elite gymnast must be proficient in every kind of body movement. There are other sports (diving or figure skating) that require a mastery of many skills, and other sports (wrestling and martial arts) that require the athlete to be proficient in multiple movements. But no sport demands such breadth of athleticism all together. Every single muscle in the gymnast’s body is forceful and finely honed, and the sport has developed so that it tests the boundaries of human capability.
Gymnastics also still fulfills the amateur ideal of the Olympic Games. An Olympic champion can earn millions of dollars in tours and endorsements and book deals, but that’s exceedingly rare. The great majority of gymnasts, even at the elite level, will win no great fame or fortune for all their efforts. Most gymnasts simply love the sport. They love striving for excellence. They hunt for perfection, for self-perfection, for the freedom that comes with total mastery over your body.
And there is great risk. No other sport in the classic Olympic repertoire — with recent X-Games sports being the exceptions — require such dangerous maneuvers over a hard surface. Broken limbs or damaged joints are common, sprains and bruises and shredded hands, but the worst are the spinal injuries. You’re not going to break your neck playing tennis or shooting arrows — but you might if you’re flipping eighteen feet in the air with nothing but your body to land on. Gymnasts have good reason to fear severe injury every day.
Paradoxically, what makes gymnastics so great also makes it a tough spectator sport. Most of us know what it’s like to hit a baseball or catch a football or kick a soccer goal, so we can enter imaginatively into the athletes’ situation. Gymnastics is so dramatically different from what most people experience that it can be hard to appreciate what’s being done right in front of your eyes. If you don’t know what it’s like to perform a triple-back-flip from the high bar, or even to try, then you probably cannot appreciate the difficulty, the risk, the training it takes.
So gymnastics is a bit of a lonely sport. It is not primarily a team sport, and most people will have little concept of what you do on a daily basis. But you endure. Since the window of opportunity for an elite gymnast is almost always very brief, most will only have one shot at the Olympics. You endure so many thousands of hours not for money, not for the admiration of your friends, and not even for that one fleeting moment of glory. You endure for the pure joy of the pursuit of excellence. You endure because you want to transcend yourself, transcend the limitations of the human body, and do something that is beautiful and astonishing for its own sake.
Videos of Gymnastics and its Offshoots
Some of the best moments in recent men’s gymnastics history:
Trampoline craziness. Most gymnasts do tramp training to develop “air sense,” but it’s also its own sub-sport:
Another sub-sport: power tumbling, on specially designed (more bouncy than the floor exercise) tumbling strips. Be sure to listen to the fat bass:
There are unhealthy elements to the sport of rhythmic gymnastics (eating disorders are common, for instance), but I have tremendous respect for how hard rhythmic gymnasts train:
Gymnasts like to watch “crash tapes.” This was the only one I could find that did not include girls (I don’t have the heart) or major injuries. Most of these are pretty mild (the worst crashes are in practice, when you’re still learning the skills):
I wanted to illustrate how ripped men’s gymnasts become, and came across this horrific video: