The Olympic team final. Each nation puts up a series of gymnasts on each apparatus, and their combined scores determine which country is the best country of all the countries. The end.
But ’twas not always this way.
In the early years of Olympic gymnastics, the team competition did not feature individual athletes performing individual routines but rather a lengthy choreographed group presentation designed to showcase the particular physical education regime of each participating country.
Determining the rules and format to govern this group presentation, however, would become the Gutsu/Miller of its time. Two prevailing styles emerged: the German system, which included fixed apparatuses like high bar and parallel bars and rings with a more regimented style originating from a military background (so, not breaking any stereotypes here…), and the Swedish system, which favored a more calisthenic approach to physical fitness with an emphasis on stretching, flexibility, and balance.
The (now considered unofficial) 1906 Olympics in Athens and the 1908 Olympics in London hosted team competitions exclusively in the Swedish system—along with all-around competitions in the German system. In 1908’s Swedish team competition, each country was given a 30-minute performance window during which anywhere from 16 to 40 men could demonstrate “free exercises,” those with “hand apparatuses,” or any combination of the two. For the men, options for hand apparatuses included swinging clubs and wands. You know, because of the spells. Women did also perform their own Swedish gymnastics demonstrations in 1908, but only for exhibition purposes, not for medals.
Unsurprisingly for a style of gymnastics known as the Swedish system, Scandinavian countries dominated the competition, with Sweden taking gold, followed by Norway in second, Finland in third, and Denmark in fourth, with all other nations far, far back.
The German federation made a BUM-BUM-BUM dramatic statement by not participating in the 1908 team competition at all (despite sending a large contingent for the all-around), rejecting this yucky poo-poo Swedish system that was far too loosey-goosey and unGerman.
This clash over which style of gymnastics should be in the Olympics would only become more fraught in the lead up to the 1912 Olympics—in Sweden.
One would think that the Swedish hosts would have been all about holding the competition in the Swedish system, but in fact, the official position of Sweden’s Olympic committee was that ranked and scored competition ran counter to the fundamental spirit of gymnastics, which should be about performance and fitness education, not competition. Sweden advocated for only exhibitions of gymnastics to be held during its Olympics, with no scores or medals awarded.
The IOC immediately went, “Ye…that’s not really what we’re about, but thanks so much for your input byebyeeeeee,” and compelled the Stockholm Olympics to include gymnastics competitions for medals.
Which in turn became its own bucket of spikes.
In fear of further angering advocates of bar-based gymnastics (cough cough, the Germans), the IOC went further than simply mandating a single team competition and concocted the most unweildly, most IOC compromise ever in which suddenly three separate team competitions would all be held at the 1912 Olympics, one under the Swedish system, one under the German system, and the other a free melange of both systems for some reason.
The compromise didn’t take. The German gymnastics federation nonetheless boycotted the 1912 Olympics—the official reason being an objection to the offensively short (apparently) 45-minute time limit for team performances.
So, um, that seems like kind of a…nothing reason to boycott an entire Olympics? Even for gymnastics federations. The excuse comes under further scrutiny because the time limit was ultimately raised to an hour anyway, and the German federation still chose not to have anything to do with gymnastics in 1912. (Athletes from Germany did travel to compete in the team competition, but it was an independent lower-level group, not the federation’s national team.)
But by that point, everyone was already set with three team competitions.
Despite the Swedish Olympic Committee’s reticence about holding a Swedish-style competition, the Swedes triumphed easily with a program that included stretching and bending calisthenics, leg-lifting movements, ab exercises, marching, and free jumping over a vault.
The Swedes’ program also included work on a balance beam, one of the rare early occasions in which men actually competed on beam at the Olympics.
With the Germans declining to send their best athletes to the 1912 Olympics, the door was wide open for the Italians to take gold in the European-system team competition. Holding a team competition with apparatuses like high bar and pommel horse also allowed all-around star Alberto Braglia to participate in an Olympic team competition for the first time—now in this third Olympics, in which he would also win his second consecutive Olympic all-around title.
The German-system competition did include some introductory free exercises of its own—though in a more militaristic marching and stretching style, with mostly squats and lunges—but then moved on to simultaneous group work on apparatuses like pommel horse, with a series of athletes performing side-by-side, each on his own horse.
The free competition—sort of the “there are no rules in this house” version—saw a mixture of both schools where the nations more or less performed how they wanted while the rest of the teammates stood around wearing some sweet hats.
While it was supposed to be a mixture of the two styles, the circumstances of this competition also seem to have favored those trained in the Swedish system since Scandinavian countries took all three medals.
Gymnastics at the next Olympics—1920 in Antwerp—had much in common with the 1912 Olympics, also featuring three separate team competitions and an absence of Germans. This time, the German absence was the result of, you know, World War I instead of getting sassy over a 45-minute time limit, but…six of one, half a dozen of the other.
The Swedes once again took the gold medal in their eponymous system in 1920, though the untenable nature of holding three separate team events seemed to have been exposed at these Antwerp games. Only two countries even bothered to send a free-system team to compete, with Denmark taking gold, Norway silver, and no bronze medal awarded.
Back in these Olympics, the teams also had to bring their own apparatuses, which was an increasingly troubling nightmare of logistics and expenses and did nothing to help the lack of participation in these team events.
By the time the 1924 Olympics in Paris rolled around, all simultaneous group performances had been eliminated, with the team medals determined by cumulative scores on apparatuses. Though teams in 1928 did have to perform a group drill before their individual events (similar to the introductory exercises from the European system in 1912), team performances in the Swedish system had their last hurrah in 1920.
While the German system certainly won out in terms of the men’s gymnastics we know today, what with those apparatuses still existing and all, the legacy of the Swedish team competition was profound, particularly for those who didn’t even have many opportunities to compete it—female gymnasts. Not only did the Swedish system bring work on beam to the fore, it also emphasized the importance of demonstrations of flexibility, while providing the first avenue for female gymnasts to enter the Olympic arena. Quite literally—the entire 1906 Olympics kicked off with the Danish women’s gymnastics team marching into the main arena to perform an exhibition, the first known performance of women’s gymnastics at the Olympics.
Prior to women being allowed to compete gymnastics at the Olympics in 1928, they performed gymnastic exhibitions alongside the men in five consecutive Olympics, all in the Swedish system. The Swedish system ultimately provided female athletes with a position in sports—in a time when few opportunities existed—partly because of the veil of nonthreatening femininity that came with it. (Balancing! Graceful prancing! Cartwheels in a garden! Lady Things For Ladies!) This same association with femininity may have proved its downfall as a MAN SPORT, but as it fell, it formed a staircase for women’s participation at the Olympics.