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Flippin' Fantastic: All You Need to Know About Gymnastics

Updated on February 22, 2014

In Honor of Sochi...sort of...

So the olympics are behind us. And even though it was the winter Olympics this time around, as a gymnastics enthusiast I can't help but think of what is yet to come in future games. So I guess this could be inspiration to get excited for what's on the way! Right?

So as usual, I don't like doing simple histories (anyone can look that up). Instead, I've compiled various points of information relating to gymnastics from several different sources that I think will all come together to make an interesting, unique, and hopefully helpful article for anyone who's simply interested in the sport or who wants to become a gymnast themselves!

So let's dive in!

Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths: grandfather of modern gymnastics
Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths: grandfather of modern gymnastics
Per Henrik Ling: natural gymnastics
Per Henrik Ling: natural gymnastics
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn: father of gymnastics
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn: father of gymnastics

Hurdling Into History

( I am trying really hard to make gymnastics-related alliterations..haha!)

Gymnastics is actually a really old sport. Like, really old. Older than your grandfather's grandfather's grandfather, even! And like many things, it has changed and transformed over its years as a sport. But one thing hasn't changed: its definition:


"The performance of systematic exercises...either in competitive sport or to improve strength, agility, coordination, and physical condition"1

Although interestingly, the term "gymnastics" comes from the Greek work meaning "to exercise naked" (awww, why'd they get rid of that?)!

The different events that we see in gymnastics today are much different than those that were practiced at the birth of the sport. In fact, tumbling and a different (more primitive) form of vaulting were the only two forms that were recognized in the ancient world. The activity of gymnastics itself was first described in Trois dialogues du Sr. Archange Tuccaro, written by Archange Tuccaro the 15th century. The book consists of essays discussing jumping and tumbling, with tumbling being an easily universal and cross-cultural influence (as seen in later decades)1

So who are the people behind this sport?

Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths is considered the grandfather of modern gymnastics, and was a teacher at a Philanthropinist school in Schnepfenthal, Germany. His visionary Gymnastik fur die Jugend imagined two major divisions in gymnastics: natural and artificial.1

Per Henrik Ling developed a lot of the concepts behind natural gymnastics, and in 1813 he opened a teacher-training center called the Royal Gymnastics Central Institute in Stockholm. His methods of teaching served to produce medical benefits for athletes involved.1

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn is considered the father of gymnastics. He was the founder of the Turnverin movement, and is known for his work in the spreading of gymnastics worldwide. His outdoor playground can be considered the starting point to gymnastic competition.1

So now we get the ball rolling; gymnastics is now a competitive sport, with many involved in making it something to be recognized worldwide. So how did it make it all the way to the Olympics? Well...

The very first German gymnastic festival was called Turnfest, and was held in Coburg in 1860. Turnverin clubs gathered in interest at Turnfest, thus marking the beginning of international competition.1

The United States had been introduced to gynmastics in the 1930s thanks to Charles Beck, Charles Follen and Francis Lieber.2

The Federation Internationale Gymnastique (FIG) was fonded in 1881. Its purpose was to monitor international competitions.1

The Olympics started to show interest in gymnastics around 1896; this marked the creation of international and open competition for gymnastics. The gymnastics in these Olympics featured the "heavy apparatus" events and rope climbing.1

In 1928, women began to compete in the Olympics in events that were very similar to the events that men competed in with the exception of the added balance beam event. Floor wasn't added until 1932.1

The World Championships for gymnastics were organized by the FIG for men in 1903 and in 1934 for women.1

Extending Into Events

So now that we know the basic history of gymnastics and its origins and growth throughout early years, we need to know exactly what goes on! So, let's start out by giving you a basic idea of all of the different events that are preformed by gymnasts during the olympics and other competitions.

Pommel Horse

The pommel horse is also sometimes called the side horse. It's a leather covered apparatus that's about 63 inches long and 13.4-14.2 inches wide and 45.3 inches from the floor to the top at the very center. The pommels or handles on the horse are about 4.7 inches high and are about 15.75-17.72 inches apart.1

A men's competition, this event requires men to support themselves with their hands holding the pommels or handles and performing movements with his trunk and legs. It's considered a modern Olympic apparatus, and originates from a wooden horse that came from the Romans and whose original purpose was to teach mounting and dismounting.1

Parallel Bars

This apparatus was invented in the 19th century by Friedrich Jahn (remember, the father of gymnastics). It has uses in developing and improving upper body strength. It consists of two parallel bars (imagine that!) made of wood. They are 2 inches thick, 11.5 feet long, 6.5 feet high, and 16.5 inches apart.

Another men's event, parallel bar routines often consist of combining swings, flight elements, strength, as well as balance.1

Horizontal Bar

This is also called the high bar. It was first used in the 19th century by Friedrich Jahn (remember who he is?!), and is basically like the parallel bars sans one bar. The one bar is maid of steel, and is 1.1 inches in diameter, 7.8 feet long, and 9.1 feet off the ground (but can be adjustable).

This is another men-only event, and the men who participate generally have to wear hand protectors. The routine lasts anywhere from 15-30 seconds.1


Boy, men have a lot of events...including this one!

Sometimes the rings are also called the still rings. This apparatus consists of two small circles suspended in the air by straps hanging from an overhead support. They were invented by our favorite person, Friedrich Jahn, in the 19th century. The rings themselves are made of wood or metal and are 1.1 inches thick with the inner diameter of 7.1 inches. The rings are suspended 8.2 feet above the floor, and are generally 19.7 inches apart.

The rings are considered the most physically demanding of the events, as they require the most strength. There has been, however, an emphasis on swinging since the 1960s that results in a lower strength requirement.

When using the rings, competitors must perform with the rings being in a stationary position with the gymnast's movements including swings, strength, and the holding of certain positions.1

Balance Beam

Finally, time for the girls! Perhaps I'm a little biased?

The balance beam is used exclusively in women's competition. The beam itself is wooden (though usually it has a soft fabric over it), and 16.4 feet long, 4 inches wide, and 4.1 feet off the ground.

The routine works as follows: gymnasts mount the beam via a vault or simply a jump, and then continue with a series of moves including steps, running, jumps, turns, sitting positions, and held positions, concluding with a dismount. These routines are generally 70-90 seconds long.1

Original vault; for men, this was situated length-wise.
Original vault; for men, this was situated length-wise.
Current vault; same for both men and women
Current vault; same for both men and women


This event is performed by both men and women.

Originally, the form was similar to the pommel horse, sans the pommels. This form then changed to a more cylindrical form made especially for vaulting, and in 2001 the FIG decided to change the form again to a table with a curved front; this ensured greater safety for the gymnast.

For men, the horse used to be placed lengthwise, though now the table is placed in the same place for both genders. The height of the table is about 4.43 feet from the ground. A specifically designed springboard called the Reuther board is placed in front of the table. Gymnasts run at the springboard, jump, and vault over the apparatus. In the air, tricks are preformed that are then judged on standards of difficulty.

For women, the horse was placed sideways instead of lengthwise. Now, the table is 4.10 feet off the ground. Their vault routines are similar to men's in that they run at a spring, jump, and vault over the apparatus while performing various tricks in the air that are then judged on standards of difficulty.1


Handspring: "springing off the hands by putting the weight on the arms and using a strong push from the shoulders; can be done either forward or backward; usually a linking movement"3

Cartwheel: "a common gymnastic skill where a gymnast starts on one leg and places his/her hands on the ground while kicking his/her legs up into a side handstand, before continuing the motion and landing with one foot on the ground followed by the other"4

Roundoff: "a dynamic turning movement, with a push-off on one leg, while swinging the legs upward in a fast cartwheel motion into a 90 degree turn. The lead-off to a number of skills"3

Floor Exercise

This is an event performed by both men and women.

The floor itself is a 40 foot square, and is covered by a cloth or mat with some cushioning for safety and minimized pain.

For men, routines typically last 50-70 seconds, and consist of movements that combine flexibility, strength, jumps, the holding of poses, balance, and other. The entire routine is expected to be rhythmic and harmonious, and must use a large amount of the floor area. It usually starts as well as ends with tumbling that standardly includes a handspring, cartwheel or roundoff.1

Women's routines include music, and have dance elements added in.

Uneven Parallel Bars

This is a women's only event, and is also called the asymmetrical parallel bars.

This apparatus was created in the 1930s, and is similar to the parallel bars in length as well as construction. The top bar is about 7.8 feet from the floor, and the lower bar is about 5.4 feet from the floor.

It was first used in international competition at the 1936 Olympics. The routine performed has a variety of movements with an emphasis on hanging and swinging exercises. A good score would come if the athlete's routine is smooth, and uses both bars equally.1

Sticking the Scoring

Now that you know what all the different events are, don't you want to know how they're scored?

Scoring is based on a routine's content, difficulty and execution, with the included category of artistry added for women. This system is used in all elite level events in the USA, while junior and lower level events are scored on the standard 10.0 system. Men's Junior Olympics use a different, slightly modified FIG scoring system.

The scoring system itself depends on the Code of Points which is modified each quadrennium via the re-evaluation of certain skills and re-adjustments of apparatus requirements. People might standardly think of gymnastics as being scored on the 10 point scale, but this was actually removed in 2006. Currently, gymnast's scores depend upon values for the routine's content and their execution.3

Difficulty score: this score depends upon the athlete's level of difficulty and technical content. This was originally called the start value. These scores are based on the number of skills performed in the routine, and the connection value as well as element group/compositional requirements.

The determiners of this score are the difficulty panel, consisting of two judges. It is decided by adding up the total values for the most difficult skills (8 for women, 10 for men), one of which includes the dismount. Each individual skill is given a difficulty value by the Code of Points and are divided into seven classifications. Connection values are given when skills or skill types are "executed successfully in succession"3. Element/group compositional requirements are the basic skills that are included in every routine.

The two scores of the D panel are then compared and the panel reaches their consensus.3

Execution Score: this is a score that includes execution and artistry (for women; balance beam, floor).

The scores are determined by the E-panel, made up of 6 judges. The score begins at 10, and deductions are made for any errors made throughout the routine. Judges independently determine the scores, and the highest and lowest are then dropped. The final score is based on the average of the 4 middle-score judges.

Deductions are anywhere from 0.1 to 1.00.3

Total Score: this score is the combined total of the difficulty and execution scores, plus deductions for neutral errors.3

Larisa Latyina (Ukraine)
Larisa Latyina (Ukraine)
Olga Korbut (Russia)
Olga Korbut (Russia)
Nadia Comaneci (Romania)
Nadia Comaneci (Romania)
Kato Sawao (Japan)
Kato Sawao (Japan)
Viktor Chukarin (Soviet)
Viktor Chukarin (Soviet)
Dominique Dawes (USA)
Dominique Dawes (USA)
Simona Amanar (Romania)
Simona Amanar (Romania)
Vitaly Scherbo (Belarus)
Vitaly Scherbo (Belarus)
Shannon Miller (USA)
Shannon Miller (USA)
Livinia Milosovici (Romania)
Livinia Milosovici (Romania)
Lilia Podkopayeva (Ukraine)
Lilia Podkopayeva (Ukraine)
Mary Lou Retton (USA)
Mary Lou Retton (USA)
Nastia Liukin (USA)
Nastia Liukin (USA)
Gabby Douglas (USA)
Gabby Douglas (USA)
Nellie Kim (Soviet)
Nellie Kim (Soviet)
Svetlana Khorkina (Russia)
Svetlana Khorkina (Russia)

Giant Gymnasts: The Famously Fabulous

Need some inspiration? Here's a list of famous gymnasts and why they're so awesome!

Larisa Latyina (Ukraine): This gymnast is considered one of the greatest female gymnasts of all time. As all-around champion in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, she also holds world championships for 1958 and 1962; a distinction unique to her.

She was the first woman to win 9 Olympic golds and is known as one of the more decorated athletes of the Olympics.

She has accumulated 18 Olympic medals, a record that was only recently surpassed by Michael Phelps in 2012.1

Olga Korbut (Russia): At a USSR championship in 1969, Olga was the first gymnast ever to do a backward arial somersault on the balance beam event, and the first ever to perform a backward release on the uneven bars. Because of these, the moves were named the Korbut salto and the Korbut flip, respectively.1

Nadia Comaneci (Romania): Nadia was the very first gymnast to receive a perfect 10 in any Olympic gymnastic event. She performed the first backward double salto as a dismount for the uneven bars at the American Cup in NYC 1976.1 She is a member of the Gymnastics Hall of Fame and has the Olympic Order, which is considered the highest award given by the International Olympic Committee.5

Kato Sawao (Japan): Kato won 8 Olympic golds and was a dominating force in the 60s and 70s. He was known best for his self-discipline and dedication.1

Viktor Chukarin (Soviet): Viktor won 11 medals in international competition as one of the first Soviet gymnasts.1

Dominique Dawes (USA): Dominique was the first African-American to win an individual event medal, and the first black person of any nationality or gender to win a gold in Olympic gymnastics.5

Simona Amanar (Romania): Simona has a routine named after her! The Amanar vault is considered the most difficult and dangerous vault in gymnastics. She had the routine named after who when she performed it at the 2000 Olympic games. The vault itself consists of a roundoff onto the board with a back handspring onto the horse with a 2.5 twisting layout backflip (see video).5

Vitaly Scherbo (Belarus): The first to win 6 gold medals in one Olympics.1

Shannon Miller (USA): Many consider Shannon to be the most decorated gymnast in the US. As a member of the "Magnificent Seven", she helped to lead her team to gold in 1996.5

Lavinia Milosovici (Romania): Lavinia and Lu Li (China) were the last two gymnasts to get a perfect 10 in Olympic competition. She received this honor on her 1992 floor routine.

Lilia Podkopayeva (Ukraine): Lilia was the first gymnast after Ludmilla Tourischeva to have all-around titles from European, World, and Olympic events. This was all done from 1995-6.5

Mary Lou Retton (USA): Mary Lou was the first incredibly successful gymnast from the US. Her performance at the 1984 Olympics won her the honor of being the first non-Eastern European to win the all-around title, and she is now a member of the Gymnastics Hall of Fame.5

Nastia Liukin (USA): The most medals won by an American gymnast in a single Olympics. She's tied with Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller.5

Gabby Douglas (USA): Gabby was the first African American woman to win an individual as well as team all-around gold medal. She accomplished this in the 2012 London Olympics.5

Nellie Kim (Soviet): Nellie was the first women to get a 10 on vault in the Olympics.5

Svetlana Khorkina (Russia): Dubbed the "Queen of the Bars", Svetlana won golds in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. She also won golds in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2001 for her bar routines at worlds. She has 8 skills named after her!5


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    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 

      3 years ago from Minnesota

      I love watching gymnastics and admire the athletes that make it looks so easy, it is not. I did take in grade school, but I was not cut out for this.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image


      4 years ago from Orange, Texas

      I enjoyed this hub very much! Thanks for taking me down memory lane. It also made me look forward now to the summer Olympics! Great job on the history, too. When I watch it this time, I"ll remember some of the names of the routines that I didn't know before.


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