Gymnastics derives its name from the ancient Greek word “gymnazein”, which means “to exercise naked.”
This sport is now a favorite of the Olympics. It was created millennia back when young men were training for war in the buff.
People have turned and twisted their bodies to discover the limits of the human body throughout human history. Britannica says that Egyptian hieroglyphs show backbends and stone engravings from China depict acrobats.
Today, gymnasts compete in a series of apparatuses. Both men and women perform a tumbling routine called a floor exercise and then launch themselves off a vault. Their other events are however different. Six events are available for men: the vault, floor, pommel horse and still rings. Parallel bars, horizontal bars, and parallel bars are all included. The floor, vault, balance beam, parallel bars and horizontal bars are all available to women.
But it wasn’t always like that. Activities like rope climbing were part of early gymnastics.
How did gymnastics evolve from young Greeks who trained naked to compete in highly-calibred events with complicated scoring systems?
Men swing around a leather-covered, handle-equipped block called a pommel horse at the Games. Its shape and size was similar to the real animal in its early versions. According to the European Gymnastics Service, Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king from 336 to 333, B.C. had his soldiers practice mounting their horses for battle on a similar device.
German Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was the inventor of the modern version. He is known as the “father” of gymnastics for creating a series gymnastics centers to promote health and patriotism. These gymnasiums were intended, in part to prepare young Germans to defend their country against Napoleon’s French army.
Jahn also created the first versions of today’s bar exercises: horizontal bars for women and parallel bars for men. The uneven bars for women evolved from the parallel bars in order to show agility and elegance.
The vault was the pommel horse with no handles for most of modern gymnastics history. Both men and women run towards it, flip, and then launch themselves into a series spins and turns.
It was rebuilt two decades ago following horrific injuries suffered by gymnasts in the 1980s, 1990s, when they tried more risky moves. American Julissa Gómez was paralysed in a vaulting accident in 1988. She died three years later. Ten years later, Chinese gymnast Sang Lin fell and broke her neck. She was then paralyzed.
In Sydney 2000 Olympics, the vault was placed two inches lower than it should have been. This sport is all about timing and precision, so the problem led to a series of disastrous mistakes that saw one athlete almost miss the vault.
The apparatus, which was also called a “vaulting” table, has a wider and more cushioned surface that athletes can spring from. Slate magazine reported that the apparatus was “the tongue” by athletes when it first made its Olympic debut in 2004.
The most difficult gymnastics event requires men to suspend themselves on two rings and hang from straps.
Because they are held in place by gymnasts, they are known as still rings. Because they were used as strength-training devices for thousands of years, they were initially called “Roman rings”. They were also known as the “flying rings” in the early versions of the modern Olympics.
The balance beam was originally a log suspended in air hundreds of years ago. The beam is now 16 feet in length, 4 feet high, and 4 inches wide. This is the event for women that requires more precision and focus. Even a small error can send a gymnast to the ground.