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A form of exercise and physical performance with origins in military preparation (in ancient as well as more modern societies), and educational programmes for fitness and health. In many respects gymnastics (alongside classic team games) is the foundation of much of the physical education curriculum in the educational institutions of Western societies. It flourishes at the highest competitive level, in the Olympic Games, where fourteen gold medals are competed for; in the schooling systems of the aforesaid societies; and at club and associational level in neighbourhoods and communities. The British army formed an Army Gymnastic Staff in 1860. In its recognizable modern form, gymnastics arose as pedagogic and political initiatives of pioneering thinkers: Guts-Muths and Jahn in Germany, and Ling in Sweden. Educational visionaries with Swedish and German backgrounds—*Österberg and Wilkie respectively—promoted Swedish gymnastics, with its stress on rhythmic fluency rather than strength-building, in schooling and physical education for women in the later 19th century in England.

Olympic gymnastics was dominated by West European nations until the 1948 London Olympics, but the sport was revolutionized in conception and ambition by the Soviet Union; at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics the Soviet gymnasts won five of the seven men's titles, and four out of six of the women's. Russia and other East European countries have continued to dominate events in the discipline, especially so in rhythmic gymnastics, in which, in the words of David Wallechinsky and Jaimie Loucky, ‘thin young women perform 75–90 second routines using various accessories: hoop, rope, clubs, ball, and ribbon’ (The Complete Book of the Olympics, 2008). At the Olympics, gymnasts compete mainly in the team competition, individual all-round competition, and routines on individual apparatus. Gymnastics was a significant popularizer of the Olympics itself, in the groundbreaking impact of performers such as Olga Korbut (USSR) and Nadia Comaneci (Romania) at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics respectively. Allen Guttmann (Sports Spectators, 1986) recalls how when pony-tailed Olga Korbut ‘slipped, fell, and wept’, the ABC's sports director Roone Arledge ‘ordered a close-up’ and the American audience shuddered with empathy; after that, gymnastics was no longer ‘an almost unknown spectator sport’ in the USA. Such performers became genuine role models for countless young women across the world.

Subjects: Medicine and Health.

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