Gymnastics was one of nine sports on the program of the first modern Olympics, at Athens in 1896. There was team and individual competition on the horizontal bars and the parallel bars, with individual competition only on the pommel horse, rings, vault, and rope climbing.
In 1900, there was only one event, the men's all-around, which included weightlifting, the pole vault, long jump, rope climb, and the combined long jump and high jump.
The first world championships, held at Antwerp in 1903, included a hodge-podge of 26 events. Among them were compulsory exercises without apparatus, optional and compulsory exercises on apparatus, the high jump, running, and weightlifting.
Until 1920, local organizers decided what event were to be on the Olympic program. The 1904 Olympics were held in St. Louis, and the gymnastics competition there probably offers a pretty good snapshot of the state of American gymnastics at that time.
All of the current men's events, except the floor exercise, were on the St. Louis program. But the program also included club swinging, rope climbing, the gymnastics triathlon (parallel bars, high bars, and combined long horse and side horse vaults), and the athletic triathlon (long jump, shot put, and 100-yard dash).
Individual apparatus competition wasn't staged from 1908 until 1924. At London in 1908, there were only two gymnastics events. The men's all-around was made up of slow and swinging movements on the high bar and parallel bars, stationary rings, pommel horse, rope climbing, and swinging ropes. There was also a mass-exercise event for teams of 16 to 40 men, in which Sweden, Norway, and Finland took the medals.
The rather confused state of gymnastics in this era is illustrated by one of the events at the 1909 world championships: the high jump, in which all competitors had to clear the same height but were judged on style.
The 1912 Olympics were held in Stockholm. The Swedish organizers felt that competition felt that the idea of competition violated Per Ling's principles, and they originally planned to stage demonstrations only. However, the European federation persuaded them to have competitive events, as well. Women took part in Olympic gymnastics for the first time, but only in a demonstration.
The 1916 Games were cancelled because of World War I. When the Olympics resumed at Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920, the European federation officially took charge of gymnastics competition. The only individual event was the all-around, but in 1924 individual apparatus competition was restored. The program included all of the current men's events except floor exercise. Rope climbing and the side horse vault were also included.
Women competed for the first time in 1928, though only in a team drill event. The floor exercise was added for the first time, rounding out the modern men's program, but club swinging, rope climbing, and tumbling were also included.
At Los Angeles in 1932, the men's events remained the same. There was no competition for women, but women did compete at the world championships for the first time in 1934.
During this early period, Italy and Switzerland were the top nations. Italy won four of five men's team championships at the Olympics, from 1912 through 1924 and in 1932, while Switzerland won the 1928 Gold Medal. Eugene Mack of Switzerland was the outstanding individual gymnast, winning six medals at the Olympics and nine at the world championships from 1928 through 1936. He dominated the 1934 world meet, winning four individual titles.
Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympics. Germany, the birthplace of the Turner movement, had generally stayed away from the world championships and Olympic gymnastics competition out of a general disdain for the way the sport was conducted in other countries. But German gymnasts were geared up the 1936 competition. The non-apparatus events were eliminated, except for the floor exercise, and the women's team drill was restored to the program. Germany won a total of 13 medals, including six gold, in the nine events.
After a 12-year hiatus because of another world war, the Olympic resumed in 1948 with exactly the same gymnastics events as in 1936. But 1952 marked a turning point for the sport in two ways. First, apparatus competition was introduced for women. Second, the Soviet Union participated for the first time, winning both all-around and both team championships, along with six other Gold Medals.
The Soviets brought to gymnastics a controlled dynamism, combining technical near-perfection with displays of sustained strength by the men and ballet-like grace and agility by the women.
The achievement was made possibly largely by the Soviet government's commitment to excellence in sports as a political goal. Promising gymnasts were identified at an early age and enrolled in intensive, state-supported training programs. Other Eastern European countries, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany, soon embarked on similar programs.
Over a period of more than 20 years, the only genuine challenge to Eastern European supremacy in gymnastics came from the Japanese men. And it was a successful challenge. From 1960 through 1978, Japan won the men's team competition at every Olympics and world championship meet. The Japanese adapted their martial arts training techniques to gymnastics, emphasizing strict obedience to the master teacher and the step-by-step accumulation of skills, with perfection demanded at each level before the student could move up to the next.
Six of the seven athletes with the most Olympic medals are gymnasts who competed in the 1952-80 period: Larissa Latynina, Nikolai Andrianov, and Boris Shakhlin of the Soviet Union; Takashi Ono of Japan; and Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia.
The gymnast who had the biggest impact on the future of women's gymnastics, though, was tiny Olga Korbut, the television star of the 1972 Munich Olympics. At 17, Korbut looked more like 12 or 13. She lacked the technical proficiency of most of her Soviet teammates, but her pixie looks and sassy presentation won the hearts of millions of fans and even swayed the judges to give her higher scores than she may have deserved, according to many gymnastics experts.
Korbut's routines were very acrobatic. Her signature move was the backward aerial somersault on the balance beam, a maneuver no other gymnast had ever performed in competition. For a time, the international federation considered banning the move as too dangerous, though some suspected the real reason was that it could be performed only by small gymnasts.
Korbut won gold medals in the floor exercise and balance beam, along with a silver in the uneven bars. More important, her television performances helped inspire millions of younger girls to take up gymnastics.
What Korbut began in 1972, the 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci of Romania continued in 1976. Unlike Korbut, Comaneci was almost flawless technically. On the uneven parallel bars in the team compulsories, she scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic history. She went on to receive six more perfect scores and she won three gold medals, two silver, and a bronze.
Though she was more graceful than Korbut, Comaneci was also exceptionally acrobatic. On the balance beam, she was the first gymnast to perform a front aerial walkover with a half-twist.
In 1980, there were ten times as many American girls competing in gymnastics as there had been 10 years before. The number of competitors in Great Britain increased from about 500,000 in 1971 to more than 3 million in 1977. The popularity of Korbut and Comaneci brought an influx of younger girls into gymnastics in other countries, as well.
During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, female gymnasts became younger, smaller, and more acrobatic. After winning the 1979 all-around championship. 22-year-old Nelli Kim of the Soviet Union held a press conference at which she urged that the minimum age for major international competition be raised from 14 to 16.
"It is not good that a child, during puberty, should undergo such nervous tension and continual, intense physical training," Kim said. "In competitions, this tension is sometimes so strong the feminine grace disappears, to the benefit of pure acrobatics." The minimum age was raised to 15 before the 1981 world championships, but that didn't stop the trend toward younger, tinier, more acrobatic female gymnasts.