Gymnastics is the practise of performing systematic exercises (often with the use of rings, bars, and other apparatus) for the purpose of improving strength, agility, coordination, and physical conditioning, either as a competitive sport or to improve strength, agility, coordination, and physical conditioning.
The name gymnastics, which comes from a Greek phrase that means “to exercise naked,” was used in ancient Greece to refer to any exercises performed in the gymnasium, where male athletes did indeed exercise naked. Until the discontinuation of the Games in 393 CE, several of these exercises were featured in the Olympic Games. Athletics (track and field), wrestling, and boxing are examples of competitions that were once included together under this traditional concept of gymnastics.
Only tumbling and a crude kind of vaulting were known in ancient times among the modern activities now considered gymnastics. For example, Egyptian hieroglyphs depict a leaper doing a cartwheel or handspring over a charging bull, while a well-known fresco from Crete at the palace at Knossos depicts a leaper performing a cartwheel or handspring over a charging bull. Tumbling was also a form of art in ancient China. Acrobatics are depicted in stone engravings from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) located in Shandong province.
Tumbling was still practised in Europe during the Middle Ages by itinerant troupes of thespians, dancers, acrobats, and jugglers. The activity was first mentioned in the West in Archange Tuccaro’s book, Trois conversations du Sr. Archange Tuccaro, written in the 15th century (the book contains three essays on jumping and tumbling). Tumbling appears to have evolved in distinct ways in a variety of cultures with little cross-cultural influence. For example, the hoop-diving shown in Tuccaro’s novel resembles a sort of tumbling practised in ancient China. Circus acrobats were the first to use crude trampolines, and tumbling and acrobatics of all kinds were eventually included into the circus.
Eastern Europe has produced several of the world’s best gymnasts. Larisa Latynina of Ukraine, subsequently the Soviet Union team’s coach, is widely regarded as the best female gymnast of all time; she won the all-around title in two Olympics (1956 and 1960) and two world championships (1958 and 1962). This honour has never been bestowed upon another gymnast. Vra áslavská of Czechoslovakia, who later became the Czech Republic’s Minister of Sport, was Latynina’s main adversary. áslavská won the all-around title three times, including two Olympic gold medals (1964 and 1968) and one world title (1966).