Thursday, August 6, 2009

History of Men's Artistic Gymnastics

Gymnastics for Men; Worshipping the Body Beautiful

As you might well expect, men’s gymnastics had an inception firmly grounded in ancient Greece. A full thousand years before the first Olympics appeared, King Minos (Crete Minoan period 2700 B.C. to 1400 B.C.) was already an advocate of fine tuning the human body with weight lifting, jumping, wrestling and other physical exercises that were the forerunner of modern day men’s artistic gymnastics.  Even the name is reflective of the philosophy of the day with its derivation from the Greek word “gymnos”, which literally means naked.  One very good reason why women were excluded not only as participants, but also as spectators; the men of the day preferred to compete “au naturel“.

The first Olympics in 776 B.C. were, of course, male exclusive.  Originating as a festival dedicated to the Greek God Zeus, only a foot race characterized the early Olympics for close to 1100 years.  Early artifacts uncovered from Ancient Greece depict men performing various athletic and acrobatic activities that have been loosely termed “gymnastics”. Early Greeks were also known to have designed elaborate complexes they called “gymnasia” for the purpose of physical fitness, which was then considered as important, if not more so, than the arts, literature and philosophical pursuits. The human body was seen as a temple that housed the mind and the soul, thus the reverence it was afforded by all.

Exercising to music was practiced even in those long ago days in a walled in but open area called a “palestra”, replete with baths and changing rooms not unlike today’s popular Day Spas.  The art of gymnastics is thought to have been perfected by the men of Sparta. Military discipline and power were paramount to the Spartan way of life; therefore physical prowess was highly prized.  In the city states of the ancients it was the males who counted, so formal education including physical pursuits were directed at the boys. A strong and agile body was every bit as critical as a sharply focused mind and Sparta continued to fine tune “gymnastics” as a regular part of military training.

Men’s artistic gymnastics is known to be the oldest form of the sport. The 1896 Athens Olympics was the genesis of the art as we know it today with five countries making the initial foray in to the Olympic arena. Of the 15 medals awarded, nine of them went to Germany.  One of the first World Championships was held in Antwerp in 1903.  At about this time in gymnastic history all around and team competitions were phased into the still male dominated sport. The 1930 Luxembourg World Championships included such events as rope climbing, a 100 meter sprint, pole vault and other sports that have since been eliminated from “gymnastics” as the sport continued to evolve into the present day genre we enjoy.

The 1954 Olympics, however, reflected enormous changes in the way the sport was viewed, having added such now familiar apparatus as floor exercise, pommel horse, vault, rings, high bar and parallel bars. These six competitions now characterize what has become the second most popular sport for men in the United States with about 1.5 million boys and men participating and one of the most popular on the planet.

As young as the girls start, the boys are unable to develop the same early beginnings due to the difficulty of developing the requisite upper body strength until the onset of puberty. This means that the elite male gymnasts are older than their female counterparts. Typically where the girls are competing at 16 years of age the boys are 19 years or older. That having been said however, males are still eligible to be Olympic competitors as of January 1 of their 16th year of age.  Like the girls, a male athlete must also possess a formidable list of qualities including strength, power, balance, air sense, and great flexibility.

The mental discipline to practice the same routine repeatedly as well as the solid work ethic that keeps a young man going day after day of grueling physical punishment is integral to success. A boy must also have grace under pressure and the courage to attempt the high risk moves that make an audience gasp with delight. Taking constant orders from a coach and keeping a positive attitude round out the laundry list of miracles a young man must be able to pull off if he wants to be an Olympic champion.

In modern Olympic competitions there are now the half a dozen major areas listed above that comprise overall training and competition on a championship as well as amateur level. The Pommel Horse is the apparatus upon which those breathtaking leg scissor moves are conducted. The double leg work that defies gravity features the gymnast swinging both legs in a circular motion in either direction and often includes amazing variations that lead to thunderous applause. The Vault is also a gravity defying routine in which gymnasts sprint down a runway before hurdling onto a springboard. Rotations into a standing position, with multiple twists and somersaults before a dismount thrill audiences every time.

Still Rings are characterized by a routine performed with two rings suspended on cables from 5.75 meters off the floor. The emphasis here is on balance, strength and power with the use of dynamic power that prevents the rings themselves from swinging.  The High Bar is used for performing what are referred to as “giants” (bar revolutions) as well as twists and altering direction. The most spectacular dismounts can happen here thanks to the ability to achieve a superior height position prior to the dismount.  The floor exercise is quite similar to that of the women except without musical accompaniment. Also, the men are required to touch each of the four corners of the floor once during the routine.

Lastly are the parallel bars for executing balances, swings and release routines that demonstrate great physical strength and coordination of body. Most male gymnasts weigh less than 150 pounds but have enormous upper body strength. Over the years many of the greatest have represented Russia such as Vitaly Scherbo, Alexei Nemoy, Nikolai Andrianov and Boris Shakhlin. Also in the unforgettable category are Japan’s Sawao Kato, and the Americans Bart Conner, Paul Hamm, Mitch Gaylord and Kurt Thomas, to name but a handful. 

The exquisite bodies and mind blowing, aerodynamic moves of male gymnasts have made them one of the teams to watch at all Summer Olympic games. Like their female counterparts they frequently go on to become announcers, coaches, actors and celebrities of another genre on the road to glory and fame.  No matter how many years pass between the Olympiad and their golden years however, we all seem to recall them as they were at that youthful moment of ultimate perfection, executing a triple back salto dismount as easy as one of us mere mortals falls off a chair.