ZHANG Ling 张玲

Even ancient artistic styles demonstrate how gymnastics and acrobatics have long been a part of Chinese culture. Photo by Joan Lebold Cohen.

Gymnastics has a long history in China. During the Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770–476 BCE) and the Warring States period 战国 (475–221 BCE), Chinese people practiced Dao Yin Shu 导引术 (medical gymnastics), which was similar to modern gymnastics and was practiced to heal illnesses and to keep the body healthy. Fitness gymnastics, such as Wu Qin Xi (five-animal exercise), Ba Duan Jin 八段锦 (eight fragments), and Yi Jing Jing 易经筋 (muscle-bone strengthening exercise), all practiced by the ancient Chinese, are still practiced by many Chinese today. In addition, ancient Chinese literature and paintings contain many records of such acrobatic gymnastics such as swing, handstand, somersault, and throw and catch, which were similar in execution to modern gymnastics.

The Launch of Modern Gymnastics

The word gymnastics comes from the Greek word gymnos, which means “naked.” Its meaning is derived from the ancient Greek custom of exercising naked. The definition and content of gymnastics have varied throughout history. In the fifth century BCE, such activities as running, jumping, throwing, wrestling, dancing, horse riding, and military games were all classified as gymnastics, and this definition held for many centuries. Later the ancient Greeks practiced gymnastics to improve physical fitness, whereas the ancient Romans used wooden horses and other apparatuses to practice equestrian skills.

It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that modern gymnastics began to develop rapidly in Europe. The European Gymnastics Federation (EGF) was founded in 1881 and the Federation of International Gymnastics (FIG) in 1896. Gymnastics was a sport in the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896.

The Origins of Gymnastics

People performed balancing and tumbling activities in Egypt and China before 2000 bce. During the second millennium bce Minoan athletes on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean not only balanced and tumbled, but also grasped the horns of a charging bull and vaulted with a front handspring to a landing on the bull’s back. As part of their training in skills needed in warfare, the ancient Romans used wooden horses to practice mounting and dismounting. This apparatus evolved into the vaulting and pommel horses of gymnastics. Early models were built to resemble horses with saddles or had at least one end curved upward like the neck of a horse. The three sections of the gymnastics horse still retain the names neck, saddle, and croup (rump).

Richard V. McGehee and Russ Crawford

If people today could watch the international artistic gymnastics competitions of one hundred years ago, they would probably find some of them familiar; competitions featured not only such events as horizontal bars, parallel bars, hand-rings, vault, and pommel horse, but also long jump, rope climbing, and weight lifting. But these events were exclusively for men; not until the Ninth Olympic Games in 1928 were women granted the right to compete. Today men’s gymnastics events include team and all-round individual events, floor exercise, pommel horse, hand-rings, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal bars. Women’s gymnastics events include team and all-round individual events, vault, uneven bars, balance bars, and floor exercise.

Of all the Olympic sports, gymnastics may be the best at demonstrating the agility of the human body and at making spectators fall head over heels in love with an athletic performance. Gymnastics has become one of the Olympic sports that awards the most gold medals. Together with the men’s and women’s trampoline and the artistic gymnastics events, gymnastics accounts for seventeen gold medals. As a result Olympic gymnastics is vigorously contested among sports powers around the world.

After the 2004 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, the Federation of International Gymnastics decided to eradicate the subjective factors of the judges that affect the scores gymnasts are awarded. In 2006 new rules were adopted. The “10.0 full score” was abolished, and the Code of Points was split into more detailed parts to make the scores show the differences between gymnasts more accurately.

Famous Gymnasts

The United States, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and China are among the most powerful countries in contemporary world gymnastics. From these countries have emerged several stars. The Romanian female gymnast Nadia Comaneci amazed the world at the 1976 Olympic Games as she became the first gymnast in Olympic history to earn a perfect 10 score. She earned seven perfect scores in all, a feat that seems almost unachievable by gymnasts of today.

The Chinese gymnast LI Ning 李宁 was famous for the extreme difficulty of his routines. In the Twenty-third Olympic Games in 1984, he won three gold medals in the floor exercise, pommel horse, and hand-ring events and invented two difficult hand-rings and parallel bars moves, later named after him by the Federation of International Gymnastics.

The Russian beauty Svetlana Khorkina is no doubt the queen of gymnastics. Her scores are always at the top of the field. Her elegance has enthralled audiences throughout the world.

Gymnastics in China

Modern gymnastics was introduced in China around 1860. During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it became the main part of physical education activities in schools. The sport developed after establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, as the country began to recover from civil war and the ravages of World War II. The Chinese national gymnastics teams were formed in 1953, and China became a member of the Federation of International Gymnastics in 1956. At the end of the 1970s, the Chinese gymnastics teams started to show outstanding results in international competitions. In the 1980s the Chinese men’s and women’s gymnastics teams became two of the most powerful teams in the world. In 1982 Li Ning shocked the world with his six straight gold medals in the Sixth Gymnastics World Cup and won the title “Prince of Gymnastics” at the Twenty-third Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Two of his teammates won gold medals in the same Olympics. LOU Yun 楼云 won a gold medal in the vault, and MA Yanhong 马艳红 won in the uneven bars.

Chinese women have won more gold medals than Chinese men have in international competitions — thus, the “stronger women and feebler men” phenomenon was characteristic of Chinese sports in the 1980s and 1990s. By the year 2000, however, performance in both programs had slipped. The men’s team won only one gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and the women none. After training with great determination, the Chinese gymnastics teams enjoyed a revival and won eight of the fourteen gold medals in the Gymnastics World Championship in Aarhus, Denmark, in October 2006. YANG Wei 扬威 won three gold medals in the men’s team, all-round, and parallel bars events. In addition, CHENG Fei 程菲 was the most successful woman, winning three titles in the women’s team, vault, and floor exercise events.

Twenty-first-Century Chinese Gymnasts

As the world prepared for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese gymnastics teams received considerable attention, but knowledgeable observers were alert to the fact that it was in some ways a new, young, and untried group of athletes, and suggested that the instability of their performances might be the biggest obstacle to their winning gold. The U.S. team has been dominant in the sport, and although the prowess of the Russian and Romanian teams has declined in recent years with the retirement of a number of star gymnasts, these teams and the fast-rising Italian, Ukrainian, and Australian teams were also significant threats to the Chinese women. The Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei, with her signature “Cheng Fei Vault,” has been thought to have a good chance to win gold medals in the vault and floor exercise events. Winning the balance beam gold medal is another goal of the Chinese women’s team.

As for men’s gymnastics, the U.S., Japanese, and Russian teams remain China’s strongest opponents in the team events. YANG Wei and CHEN Yibing 陈一冰 are two particularly promising Chinese athletes, and calm and stable gymnasts such as XIAO Qin 肖钦 and FENG Jing 冯敬 almost guarantee the Chinese team a gold medal in the men’s pommel horse event. CHEN Yi Bing’s -hand–rings performance and Yang Wei’s and LI Xiaopeng’s 李小鹏 parallel bars skills are known throughout the world — and likely to bring home gold.

Source: Zhang Ling. (2008). Gymnastics. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 52–54. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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