In­no­va­tor: Friedrich Jahn

The man re­spon­si­ble for the de­vel­op­ment of the sport’s mod­ern ap­pa­ra­tus was once ar­rested for us­ing gym­nas­tics as a political weapon.

Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - – Robert Drane



IN AN­CIENT Greece, where the gym­na­sium was a work­shop for the de­vel­op­ment of var­i­ous Gre­cian ideas and ideals, gym­nas­tics (from the verb gym­nazo, mean­ing “to train naked”) was an all-en­com­pass­ing ac­tiv­ity, in­cor­po­rat­ing swim­ming, weightlift­ing, run­ning, var­i­ous throw­ing ac­tiv­i­ties like dis­cus, wrestling, hand-to-hand com­bat and other rig­or­ous rou­tines. You could ar­gue that gym­nas­tics was an­other word for sport.

Later, af­ter con­quer­ing the Gre­cian em­pire, the Ro­mans adapted th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties to the prepa­ra­tion of sol­diers for war, but in 393 AD, the em­peror Theo­do­sius banned all gym­nas­tic prac­tice – and the orig­i­nal Olympic Games – on the pre­text that it was all be­com­ing way too cor­rupt. In fact, like any self-re­spect­ing dic­ta­tor, Theo, jeal­ous of the revered stars of sport whom he some­how saw as ri­vals to his claims to im­mor­tal­ity, was giv­ing free rein to his para­noia.

The glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the hu­man body at the ex­pense of spir­i­tual life was frowned upon in the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, which had a mo­nop­oly over all mat­ters spir­i­tual, and most ath­letic ac­tiv­ity sank fur­ther into ob­scu­rity.

The res­ur­rec­tion of gym­nas­tics was de­cid­edly Ger­manic. In 1774, a Prus­sian, Jo­hann Bern­hard Base­dow, added “gym­nas­tics” to the cur­ricu­lum at his school in Des­sau, Sax­ony. As with all mod­ern sport, the avail­abil­ity of ma­te­ri­als and the tech­nol­ogy to fash­ion them came to de­fine the ac­tiv­ity when Jo­hann Gut­sMuths – a fu­ture In­no­va­tor sub­ject – and Friedrich Jahn de­signed ap­pa­ra­tus for gym­nas­tics. It was Jahn who de­vel­oped the first equip­ment that was to nar­row gym­nas­tics to a set of rou­tines that could be per­formed on that equip­ment: the side bar, the vault­ing horse, the hor­i­zon­tal bar, the par­al­lel bars. He also pop­u­larised the use of the bal­ance beam, which was pur­port­edly in­vented by Gut­sMuths while he was in the process of cre­at­ing the more artis­tic form of gym­nas­tics, which em­pha­sised rhyth­mic move­ment and bal­ance. In its new forms, gym­nas­tics flour­ished in Ger­many in the 1800s.

Af­ter set­tling in Ber­lin to be­come a sec­ondary school teacher, Jahn be­gan a pro­gram he’d been pon­der­ing for some time of out­door ac­tiv­ity and ex­er­cise, and soon gath­ered a large fol­low­ing among adults as well, as word caught on. In no time, he be­came well-known enough to open his first “turn­platz” (open-air gym­na­sium), de­voted strictly to gym­nas­tics, in 1811, fea­tur­ing his newly de­vel­oped equip­ment. Not long after­ward, many clubs were opened through­out Europe and Eng­land. By the late 19th Cen­tury, thanks to Dr Dudley Allen Sar­gent, who also in­vented a fur­ther 30 pieces of ap­pa­ra­tus, it had caught on in the USA. In Rus­sia in 1883, renowned play­wright An­ton Chekhov, along with other artists and so­cial re­form­ers, formed the Rus­sian Gym­nas­tic Fed­er­a­tion.

Jahn, a the­olo­gian, his­to­rian and philol­o­gist, ad­vo­cated and de­vel­oped gym­nas­tics as a means of restor­ing the spirit of his peo­ple

af­ter the ab­ject de­feats of the Napoleonic wars, thus in­ad­ver­tently politi­cis­ing his pro­gram of phys­i­cal well-be­ing.

Jahn was known in Ger­many as “Turnvater”, which means, loosely, “father of gym­nas­tics”. How­ever, the judg­ment of his­tory has taken a nasty turn against the Turnvater. Be­cause of Jahn’s de­sire to re­store na­tion­al­is­tic pride to his folk, his Turn­vere­ine (“gym­nas­tic unions”) were con­sid­ered hubs of political, not just ath­letic, ac­tiv­ity. In­deed, many “Turn­ers” par­tic­i­pated in the Euro­pean “Peo­ple’s Spring” Rev­o­lu­tions of 1848. Jahn was at one time ar­rested and banned from en­ter­ing Ber­lin. The ban lasted the rest of his life. The “move­ment”, as it came to be con­sid­ered, was largely sup­pressed in Europe, and many “Turn­ers”, dubbed the “forty-eighters”, em­i­grated to the USA, where they formed the fa­mous Ger­man-Amer­i­can gym­nas­tics clubs, be­came po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial and even fought in the Amer­i­can Civil War. Even­tu­ally, the Ger­man “Turner move­ment” be­came in­volved in the process that led to Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion.

Jahn’s legacy took an­other un­pleas­ant twist when his na­tion­al­is­tic pride, his be­lief in phys­i­cal de­vel­op­ment and his dis­trust of for­eign­ers, par­tic­u­larly the “Poles, French, priests, aris­to­crats and Jews” whom he be­lieved had sub­verted his na­tion, were all ap­pro­pri­ated by the Nazis in the fol­low­ing cen­tury. They, and their crit­ics, in­stalled Jahn, un­fairly, as a “father” of Nazism. Yes, I know what you’re think­ing: that es­ca­lated quickly! But gym­nas­tics is like that. Be­cause of the his­tor­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion of fit­ness, health and strength with “phys­i­cal readi­ness” for war, it has al­ways been a tool for politi­cians and war­mon­gers.

Mean­while, back in 19th Cen­tury Europe, the pop­u­lar­ity of gym­nas­tics spread across the con­ti­nent. When the Olympic Games were res­ur­rected in 1896, it was in­cluded, and its form, thanks to its ap­pa­ra­tus, had be­come re­fined, un­til even­tu­ally it led to the beau­ti­ful spec­ta­cle we see to­day.

Watch­ing gym­nasts per­form in­spires rev­er­ence, like a hymn, or Beethoven. The only rea­son this paean to the hu­man body lacks main­stream ap­peal is its lack of one-to-one com­pe­ti­tion that thrills most spectators. Its men are prob­a­bly sport’s best phys­i­cal spec­i­mens, if it’s the male ideal you’re still af­ter. But al­low us to re­vise, or ex­pand, Friedrich Jahn’s legacy: the most re­mark­able, and ironic, thing – given its his­tory – about gym­nas­tics is the way it has show­cased the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of its women. Since their in­clu­sion at the Games in 1920, women, with their blend of man­i­festly phys­i­cal yet sub­tle beauty, have been its most fa­mous ex­po­nents. Olga Kor­but, Na­dia Co­maneci and Larisa Latyn­ina have show­cased what is su­perla­tive about the fe­male ath­lete. Friedrich Jahn, with the ap­pa­ra­tus he de­vel­oped and the sport he cham­pi­oned, gave them that op­por­tu­nity, and us the chance to savour it.

Ja­pan’s Kazuhito Tanaka on Jahn’s par­al­lel bars at Lon­don 2012. The great Na­dia Co­maneci.  Leg­endary gym­nast Larisa Latyn­ina.

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