The casual spectator gains a deeper appreciation for the events of the summer Olympics from the Olympics men’s gymnastics history. Another not so obvious beneficiary of a more than perfunctory knowledge of men’s gymnastics history are the gymnasts themselves. A greater awareness of their sport might engender a greater desire to uphold the honor of the competition like it was in the beginning.
The very origin of the Greek “gymnastics” (to exercise naked), highlights the importance of the people of Greece placed on development of the body and the mind. In the center of men’s gymnastics history is the beauty and symmetry of the human body in movement.
Greek males performed vaulting and tumbling exercises inside the confines of a gymnasium. Though ancient gymnastic exercises bore little resemblance to those practiced today, they were the basis for modern men’s gymnastics. The Olympiad games were as much a part of Greek life as their myriad religions, but there was change looming on the horizon.
The Roman Empire was growing into a formidable power and the Greeks were forced to exchange the athletic gymnastic premise for one more militaristic in nature. Where the objective of wrestling, running, jumping and boxing was to defeat an opponent in an athletic contest, now the purpose was to not be mortally wounded in battle. The Olympic games continued until they were stopped by the conquering Romans under Emperor Theodosius in 393 A.D. and the human endeavor to measure physical excellence in the sports arena lay dormant for centuries.
In the late 1700s and early 1800sm two German physical education teachers stamped their mark on men’s gymnastics forever. Not men to put the cart before the horse, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and Johann GutsMuth first developed a set of exercises and designed the apparatuses to perform them on. The exercise apparatuses invented by these two innovators—the pommel horse, parallel bars, the vault and horizontal bars—led to the birth of modern men’s gymnastics. Olympics men’s gymnastics was soon to make a resurgence.
In 1896, the Olympic Games came full circle and were played again full-scale in Athens, Greece. Once again, the sinews of young men were stretched taunt on the parallel bars, the high bar, the flying rings and the rope climb. And, as if defying gravity, male athletes vaulted through the air buoyed by the thrill of competition. After the reemergence of the Olympic games in 1896, men’s gymnastics evolved. Gone was rope climbing and in came floor exercises. Out went the one-dimensional aspect of strength. Enter artistic expression in combination with exhibitions of strength and power. The standardization of Olympics men’s gymnastics was underway.
Today, Olympic gymnasts compete in three divisions: artistic, rhythmic and trampoline. Only women compete in rhythmic events, but both men and women compete in artistic and trampoline events. In Olympic men’s artistic gymnastic events, athletes compete on six apparatuses: rings, pommel horse, horizontal bar, vault and floor exercise. We can only wonder at the thoughts of Jahn and Gutsmuth if they were able to watch a world class male gymnast performing the Thomas Flair on the pommel horse. Would Chechi’s trademark performances on the rings evoke deep admiration from the ancient Greek Olympians?
Olympics men’s gymnastics history began pitting man against man in an athletic test and transformed into a military training activity in response to an encroaching Rome. Today, men’s gymnastics has returned to its original premise of placing physical development on par with the intellect.