Gymnastics has been my passion since I was two years old, and after almost 14 years of doing this sport I began to wonder. Where did gymnastics even come from? It was difficult to imagine how someone could even invent something like gymnastics, so I decided to find out.
Men’s gymnastics is a sport that dates back thousands of years, with the earliest recorded evidence of gymnastics being practiced by the ancient Greeks. In fact, the word “gymnastics” itself comes from the Greek word “gymnos,” which means “naked,” as the ancient Greeks believed that physical exercise should be performed in the nude.
These early civilizations used gymnastics as a way to train soldiers and prepare them for battle. They believed that physical strength and agility were essential for success in war, and so they placed a great emphasis on gymnastics as a means of training their soldiers.
But how did gymnastics go from an ancient Greek training method for warriors to the sport we know today? Well in large part it was due to Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, also known as the “Turnvater,” or “father of gymnastics.” He was a German educator and nationalist who is credited with being the founder of modern men’s gymnastics. Jahn founded the first gymnastics club in Germany in 1811, which he called the “Turnverein,” or “gymnastics club.” The first gymnastics club Jahn created was constructed outside, and consisted of several wooden climbing structures, as well as early forms of the parallel bars, pommel horse, rings, and highbar.
Jahn was enraged by the sights of Napoleon taking over his homeland of Prussia, he decided that he would empower his people into taking arms by training them using gymnastic movements.
As a result of Jahn’s attempts at empowering the people to fight against Napoleon, his outdoor gymnastics facility was eventually closed in 1819. However several turnplatz inspired gyms started opening in the United States during 1825, and gymnastics continued to gain popularity until its eventual inclusion in the first modern olympic games in 1896. There were 6 individual events competed at these games, parallel bars, horizontal bar, vault, rings, pommel horse, and rope climbing.
At the 1920 olympics in Antwerp Belgium, the floor exercise was competed for the first time. However the routines most likely consisted mainly of calisthenic movements as opposed to tumbling. At the 1936 Olympics, we can finally start to see modern men’s gymnastics take shape. The men competed only on floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, and high bar. There was no rope climbing, calisthenics, or any other unrelated gymnastics movement at this Olympics.
Gymnastics continued to evolve during the 1900’s before experiencing a boom in popularity during the cold war, when countries began to view the olympics as a way to passively one up each other. The Olympics went from a sporting event, to more of a cultural war between countries, and it still remains this way to this day. However the boom in popularity was mostly on the women’s side of gymnastics, with gymnasts like Olga Korbut gaining worldwide popularity for her skills.
Men’s gymnastics has continued to evolve to this day, with new and more difficult skills being created all the time. Almost impossible movements such as triple backflips on the floor, to backflips with two twists over the highbar being done.
However men’s gymnastics never quite gained the same popularity as women’s gymnastics, and in recent years with title nine colleges have begun to cut their men’s gymnastics teams, as well as many other smaller sports teams, in order to allocate funding for more women’s sports. Over the last 60 years, the number of collegiate men’s gymnastics teams has gone from 200 in 1960, to just 13 this year. While the future of men’s gymnastics becomes uncertain, it is still one of the most incredible and difficult sports on the planet.