How gymnastics became a deeply beloved Olympic sport

Its roots can be traced to ancient Greece. But the rise of modern gymnastics has been fueled by nationalism—from the Napoleonic Wars to the Soviet era.

Naked men exercising in open-air plazas. Stalwart bodyguards at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. Diminutive teenagers rocketing off of the ground into a dizzying sequence of flips and jumps. These images aren’t random—they’re all part of the history of gymnastics.

With the dominance of athletes like Simone Biles and Kohei Uchimura, the sport has become one of the Olympic Games’ most beloved. It hasn’t always included the uneven bars or balance beam—early iterations included feats like rope climbing and swinging clubs. But during its evolution from ancient Greek tradition to modern Olympic sport, gymnastics has always been closely paired with ideas of national pride and identity.

The origin of gymnastics

The sport has its origins in ancient Greece, where young men underwent intense physical and mental training for warfare. The word stems from the Greek word gymnos, or “naked,”—appropriate, since the youths trained in the nude, performing floor exercises, lifting weights, and racing one another. (How ancient Greeks mixed naked sports with pagan partying.)

For the Greeks, exercise and learning went hand in hand. According to sports historian R. Scott Kretchmar, the gyms where Greek youths trained served as “hubs for scholarship and discovery”—community centers where young people were educated in the physical and intellectual arts. Fourth-century-B.C. Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that “the education of the body must precede that of the mind.”

But gymnastics, as we know it today, comes from another hotbed of intellectualism and intense debate: 18th- and 19th-century Europe. There, as in ancient Greece, physical fitness was considered an integral part of citizenship and patriotism. The era’s popular gymnastic societies combined all three.

Former Prussian soldier Friedrich Ludwig Jahn—who would later become known as the “father of gymnastics”—embraced Enlightenment-era concepts of national pride and education. After Prussia was invaded by France, Jahn saw the Germans’ defeat as a national humiliation. To uplift his countrymen and unite its youth, he turned to physical fitness. Jahn created a gymnastics system called Turnen and invented new equipment for his pupils, including the parallel and high bars, the balance beam, and the horse.  

How nationalism fueled the rise of gymnastics

In the early 1800s, Jahn’s followers, known as Turners, bonded over moves similar to modern gymnastics in cities throughout Germany. They tested their skill on balance beams and pommel horses, climbed ladders, hung from rings, and did long jump and other activities along with mass calisthenic exhibitions.

At Turner festivals, they exchanged ideas, competed in gymnastics, and discussed politics. And over the years, they brought their ideas about philosophy, education, and fitness to the United States, where their gymnastics clubs became crucial community centers.

Turners also became an American political force. Many had left their home country because they objected to Germany’s monarchies and craved freedom. As a result, some Turners became staunch abolitionists and supporters of Abraham Lincoln. The president was protected by two companies of Turners at his first inauguration, and Turners even formed their own regiments in the Union Army.

Meanwhile, another European sect that worshiped physical fitness emerged in Prague in the mid-19th century. Like the Turners, the Sokol movement was made up of nationalists who thought that mass coordinated calisthenics could bring the Czech people together. Sokols became the most popular organizations in Czechoslovakia, with exercises that included parallel and horizontal bars and floor routines.

Gymnastics at the Olympics

With visibility boosted by the Turners and the Sokols, gymnastics grew in popularity. By 1881, international interest in the sport had grown enough that the International Gymnastics Federation was formed.

During the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, gymnastics was high on founder Pierre de Coubertin’s list of must-include activities. Seventy-one male competitors participated in eight gymnastics events, including rope climbing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germany swept the medals, earning five golds, three silvers, and two bronzes. Greece followed with six medals, trailed by Switzerland’s three. (These images depict some of the most important moments in Olympic history.)

In the years that followed, gymnastics morphed into a defined sport with standardized scoring and events. It split into two divisions: artistic gymnastics, which involves vault, uneven bars, balance beam, pommel horse, still rings, parallel bars, horizontal bars, and floor; and rhythmic gymnastics, which involves apparatuses like hoops, balls, and ribbons. In 1928, women competed in Olympic gymnastics for the first time.

Cold War rivalries

By the mid 20th century, however, Olympic gymnastics was in decline, and officials suggested downsizing the sport and even cutting the team competition. As the Cold War heated up, the U.S.S.R. saw an opportunity in a seemingly fallow sport. Since there were no strong Western competitors, the Soviets believed they could dominate, and began investing in gymnastics.

When international audiences realized a group of superstar athletes had been training behind the Iron Curtain, they began to pay attention to people like Nadia Comăneci, a Romanian athlete who astonished the world by earning the first perfect 10 ever awarded to a female gymnast in 1976. At its peak, the Eastern Bloc won 99 percent of all gymnastic Olympic medals in women’s artistic gymnastics, spurring a new wave of nationalist competition as Western countries began investing in the sport.

The Olympics were a stage for Cold War rivalries in more ways than one. In 1980, the U.S. and 65 other nations boycotted the Summer Olympics to protest the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union retaliated with its own boycott in 1984, giving the U.S. an opening for its Olympic gymnastics teams. That year, the U.S. scored its first Olympic gold medal for its men’s gymnastics team, the first all-around gold medal for Mary Lou Retton, and a number of other gymnastic golds. (Learn more about the Olympics' turbulent history in times of global crisis.)

Since then, the U.S. and former Soviet nations have continued their rivalry. Russia leads the all-time gymnastic rankings with 182 medals to date; the U.S. trails with 114.

Scandals

Gymnastics encouraged national unity and celebrated physical perfection. But that has come at a dire cost for athletes. The discipline for which the sport is praised lends itself to abusive training methods, and the sport has been criticized for favoring extremely young participants.

Then there are the scandals. Rumors of state-sanctioned doping have long plagued the Soviet Union and Russia, and Russian athletes are currently banned from using their country’s name, flag or anthem in all Olympic sports until 2022 due to documented instances of non-compliance with doping rules.  

In 2016, Larry Nassar, the team doctor of USA Gymnastics, the governing body of American gymnasts, was charged with sexual assault of a child. Over the months that followed, a scandal unraveled the behind-the-scenes world of gymnastics, exposing a culture of verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and subjugation. More than 150 gymnasts testified at Nassar’s sentencing hearing, and he was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison in 2017.

Legacy

Gymnastics is no longer part of a broader political movement espousing nationalism and social unity. But its popularity—and its role in national pride—endures. Ultimately that’s the point of the Olympics, writes David Clay Large, a senior fellow with the University of California Berkeley’s Center for European Studies, in Foreign Policy.

“These purported celebrations of one-world togetherness succeed because they indulge precisely what they want to transcend: the world’s basest instinct for tribalism,” he writes. “The ideological animosities of the Cold War era may have ebbed but nationalism clearly has not.”

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