Saturday, May 2, 2009

History of Women's Artistic Gymnastics

True to history, women were not an active part of Olympic gymnast history until comfortably into the 20th century.  Still fighting for suffrage and equal rights it probably did not seem such a great priority to many of the women of the turn of the century era.

Even the etymology of the word “gymnastics” is intriguing, harking as it does back about 2,000 years to the Greeks who were anything but boring. The feminine form of the Greek word “gymnastikos” means “fond of athletic exercises”; along with the word “gymnos” meaning “naked” thanks to the Greek proclivity for exercising and competing sans clothing. The female gymnast of today, as we all know, have turned dressing for the sport into an art form all its own just as she has done for the sport itself as applied to the feminine gender.

The ancient Greeks, however, were much more interested in pushing the limits of the human body than worrying about the plight of women and considered athletics the male dominated super ior of even art and music.  The genesis of the concept was inclusive of other athletic pursuits with a rubric that included swimming, jumping, running, wrestling and other related physical activities.   The exclusive province of males at its origination and for centuries following, gymnastics finally evolved to welcome the female gymnast in the 20th century.

As late as 1896 only males were involved in Olympic competition around the world when the newly formed Federation of International Gymnastics (Liege 1881) managed to get gymnastics included in the first modern day Olympic games. Two physical education instructors named Johann Gutsmuths and Friedrich Jahn invented the early gymnastic apparatus, which later morphed into the modern form of gymnastics equipment that we are familiar with today, in Germany during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Jahn actually designed the early forms of the horizontal and parallel bars, as well as the vaulting horse for his young male students that would later be adapted for women as well.

The decade of the roaring 1920s, saw women organize the first female gymnastics events, as well as the first female Olympic competition, primitive to be sure at that juncture, as it consisted of only synchronized calisthenics.  It made its debut at the Amsterdam Games in 1928 to the great delight of women around the world.  Because gymnastics had been formerly used in military training the new term “artistic gymnastics” was coined to differentiate between the two styles. Naturally, women pursued the artistic form and by 1954 the Olympic Games included separate events and apparatus for the competition of both men a

Women’s Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) is now the most popular form of the sport for women in the United States.  Of the estimated 4.5 million gymnasts in the US about 71% are female. A girl must be 16 years of age at the end of the Olympic year to be eligible to compete.  However, actually training can begin as early as 2 years old with amateur competing by 7 years old.  One need only take note of names like Nadia Comaneci, Shawn Johnson, Mary Lou Retton, Nastia Liukin, Dominique Dawes,  Cathy Rigby and Shannon Miller to name but a few, to know there is gold lurking in those parallel bars. With an average size of about 4’9 and 83 pounds, a female gymnast is pretty much the munchkin of the Olympics. Nevertheless, good things really do come in small packages where these athletes are concerned and every continent on the planet has produced champion female gymnasts.

Notably Romania gave us Nadia Comaneci, the first ever woman to earn a perfect 10.0 score in artistic gymnastics at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She is still considered to be arguably the finest female gymnast in history, which given the recent acceptance of women to the Olympics still has a long ways to go. Nevertheless she certainly typifies the combination of attributes a woman must possess to be a worthy competitor. Strength, air sense, poise, perfect balance, and gravity defying flexibility are all a part of the quintessential female gymnast package. Add to that courage, grace under pressure, eloquence and an indefatigable work ethic and you might have the start of a potential gold medal winner.

Olympic competition for a female gymnast typically includes four basic events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. In vaulting, the ladies sprint down a 25 meter (roughly 82 feet) runway and leap onto a springboard, landing for a moment inverted on their hands on the vaulting horse. Springing agilely off the platform and they proceed to do a two footed landing.  In 2001, the traditional vaulting horse was replaced by something called a tongue or table, which is more stable, wider and longer than the old apparatus was.

The uneven bars call for the women to navigate two horizontal bars, which have been set at a height variance. On these bars the performance consists of circling, swinging, release and transitional moves.  The balance beam requires a choreographed routine of about a minute and a half, which contains dance elements such as turns and leaps with acrobatic skills all done on a padded sprung beam. The final and perhaps most popular of the events is the floor exercise.  During about 90 seconds of exquisitely choreographed dance moves on a carpeted 40’ X 40” padded square, the female gymnast exhorts applause aplenty with tumbling passes, jumps and acrobatic skills that defy gravity.

Held at the Summer Olympics, every four years, artistic gymnastics is one of the most watched and enjoyed of all the Olympic events.  With years of training in ballet, dance, and aerobics along with gymnastics the road to the Olympics is a long one. Some of the preliminary competitions worldwide involve the All Africa Games, Commonwealth Games, Pacific Rim Championships, European Championships, South American Games, Pan American Games, and Asian Games, to mention only a handful. These kinds of events generate millions of dollars annually and are televised internationally, giving the female gymnast opportunities to not only compete but to be seen and recognized prior to her Olympic competition.

Artistic Gymnastics can be a springboard (pun intended) to riches with product endorsements, film and movie roles, and other lucrative opportunities as varied as the talents of the women.  Women may have gotten off to a slow start historically in the Artistic Gymnast Theater but they have made enormous strides over the past 6 decades in popularizing the craft to the point of iconic status.  With perfectly toned athletes bodies, the vigor and innocence of youth, charming smiles, and snazzy outfits, today’s female gymnasts do a lot more than just bend it on the bars. They also bend our hearts.