No one really knows when gymnastics started. There are cave drawings that date back thousands of years that depict tumblers and athletes performing what appears to be floor exercises. As recorded history tells, in the beginning (ancient Greece) the gymnasts of the time were actually wrestling. The combatants would perform dynamic exercises before engaging in unarmed hand to hand combat and the pre match exercises became so popular that the crowds would actually arrive earlier just to see the show. It wasn’t long before the wrestlers began tailoring their routines to the audience and eventually people came just to see the exercises.
This went on for centuries with variations being added like handstands and tumbling skills. In fact the practice was so entertaining that the actors of the 1200-1500 era also needed to be tumblers. In fact kings demanded their own troupes for entertainment and always included tumblers which they called “Jesters”.
In the late 1500’s an Italian jester or acrobat (as they came to be known after adding more aerial skills) named Archange Tuccaro (1536 – 1616)actually wrote a book about his repertoire of skills and had it published in 1599. Tuccaro, it could be said, wrote the first coaching manual for our sport over 400 years ago. The Italian author also was the coach to kings having been the teacher of King Henry III, his efforts earned him the title of Court Jumper.
In the modern era free exercises go back to the founding fathers of modern gymnastics who all lived in Germany. Adolph Speiss (1810-1858) and Justus Carl Lion (1829-1901) made popular the field routines that eventually grew into Floor Exercise. But it was Frederich Jahn (1778-1852) who added many apparatuses to create a sport separate from other sports. Jahn who became known as the Turnvater or Father of Modern Gymnastics incorporated acrobatic skills into his sport as well. However being a staunch nationalist he didn’t what to use any of Tuccaro’s terminology, so he referred to the skills as Kopfuebern ( head over heels).
One of Jahn’s biggest events was the calisthenic based mass floor routine. During these routines 100’s of gymnasts would be on the field and do exercises in unison. Later on at these events individuals would perform by themselves laying the ground work for todays individual sport of
gymnastics. In fact it was at a German Gym Festival in Munich in 1923 that Martin Gebhardt was the first gymnast who dared to perform a back handspring. This was a big skill at the time as most tumbling was lateral (cartwheels) or rolling. Back then all gymnasts performed their free exercises on the lawn, thank goodness we’ve evolved since then. Tumbling and Floor Exercise as it came to be known did evolve substantially in the thirties and the floor at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin was already lightly sprung. The English and Germans pioneered special floor
exercise mats (‘sprung floors’) as early as the twenties. Today we refer to Gymnastics as the grandfather of all sports since most modern sports were derived from the German Turnverein halls where gymnastics was a staple. Basketball, Baseball and Football all have their origins traced back to gymnastics. Even modern Gymnastics has offspring, like the sports of Tumbling and Trampoline. Today Americans like Kalon Ludvigson are known for their skill and lead the world in further evolving the skills that are attainable by future athletes. I often tell my team gymnasts that they do for warm ups what Olympian and poster girl of perfection Nadia Comaneci did for competition; and that was only 35 years ago. I wonder what Taccaro, Jahn or Gebhardt would think if they watched Kalon’s tumbling shown here? (Kalon is a world champion tumbler but in this routine he is competing Men’s Artistic Gymnastics Floor Exercise and with his skill difficulty no one can touch him)