Gymnastics is a sport almost as old as man. Developed by the ancient Greeks in Sparta and Athens around 776 B.C., it was meant to prepare men for warfare. An exhibition of a military students’ abilities was performed for dignitaries in their final year of training, and this was done naked, except for weapons of war. The word “gymnastics” is derived from the Greek word “gymnos” which means “train naked”. While they prepared their bodies for war, the Athenians prepared their minds as well. The combination of mind and body gave rise to a more aesthetic form of gymnastics. After the Romans conquered Greece, they made gymnastics into a more formal affair. They adapted it and used it to train their legions, but with the fall of the Roman Empire, interest in gymnastics fell and was eventually forgotten.
The revival of gymnastics began during the Renaissance of the 16th century. Once again, it was practiced for the benefits it provides to both mind and body. There was a major leap forward, however, when Dr. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn started the modern gymnastics movement in 19th century Germany. He developed exercises for young men and is seen as the father of modern gymnastics. He introduced the pommel horse, horizontal bar, rings, and other equipment used in gymnastics today. At the end of the 19th century, gymnastics became so popular it was included in the first “modern” Olympics. The purpose of gymnastics has changed dramatically from an art of war and training to a sport and a means of physical fitness. The equipment has changed over the years too. Engineering and design changes have increased the safety for the athlete and helped prevent injuries. Since the sport of gymnastics and the equipment has changed so much, different designs and materials are used today compared to 200 years ago.
The rings were a part of the first Olympic games in 1896 and were absent until 1924. Originally, the gymnast would perform tricks while the rings swung freely, and the event was called the flying rings. Around the 1960s, they became known as the still rings and resembled the modern event we know today. The first rings were made of iron, rubber, or wood and were covered in a variety of fabrics or leathers. Today, they are made from laminated wood.
Bars were also a part of the 1896 Olympic games and have been a part of the event ever since. The parallel bars consist of two bars that are parallel to each other and elevated off the floor by metal supports. They are 20 inches apart and 6 ½ feet off the floor. Only men compete on the parallel bars, but the parallel uneven bars were developed around 1934, and only women compete on them. It was not until 1954 that they were considered completely different events. The first bars were made of solid wooden rails that had no flexibility. Today, they are made from composite, flexible rails, and have a hollow fiberglass core surrounded by a laminated veneer. The smooth surface absorbs shock and provides bounce for the athletes.
To aid in their military training, the ancient Romans invented this to practice mounting and dismounting horses. It was simply a wooden block shaped to resemble a horse’s back, and it was designed to train soldiers on how to get off and on quickly in battle. Alexander the Great is one of the earliest known to use the pommel horse. In the early 19th century, it began to take on the more familiar shape with the reintroduction of gymnastics as a sport and hobby. Athletes found it difficult to perform tricks on the asymmetrical horse shape, and over time its resemblance to an actual horse lessened until it became more symmetrical. Edges were rounded and the pummels, or handles, were added. Modern pommel horses are made from steel, for the pommels, and a brass shell covered in leather.
The vaulting table had the most dramatic change since it’s invention 200 years ago. Prior to 2001, the vaulting table was the size and shape of the pommel horse, minus the pommels. As gymnasts became stronger and faster, they also tried more complex and difficult vaults. It was common for a vaulter to slip on the spring board and slam into the horse at full speed. Because the table is bolted to the floor, it would not give an inch and the gymnast would get hurt. A series of accidents during competition in the 1980’s and 90’s led to the creation of a better vaulting table that had a smaller profile and could be more easily avoided if needed. It is now the standard all over the world.
The balance beam is not as old as the other apparatus. Some balancing exercises were described in the 1800s and used fallen trees and tree trunks. The beam didn’t become a part of competitive gymnastics until 1934 at the World Championships, and medals weren’t issued for performances until 1952. At the time, it was just a long rectangular block of wood with no padding on it at all. Routines in those days were more about dancing on the beam. It wasn’t until the 1970s when gymnasts from Belarus and Romania introduced powerful tumbling passes, so it became necessary to change the design of the balance beam. Now they are made with vinyl or suede covered surfaces, so they are less slippery. Rounded edges and softer padding under the cover were add as well, which reduces stress on joints from the more difficult moves performed on it.
Padding and Floor Mats
Obviously in the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans there were no tumbling mats. Padding and safety were the least of their concerns. They were practicing gymnastics to prepare for war, so getting hurt wasn’t as big of a deal to them. When Friedrich Jahn started the modern gymnastics movement, they didn’t have floor mats or crash pads either. They did know that they needed some kind of protection though. Because they practiced mostly outdoors, they put the rings or a beam over a sand pit covered with hay to soften any falls. As the movement grew and technology evolved with the sport, better padding was made. It was often bags or mattresses, similar to pads stuffed with feathers or cotton, that were layered on the floor under or around the apparatus. These early designs gave way to the modern foam crash mats that cover every inch of a gymnasium today.