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Climbing and Gymnastics

 A Historical Association

A Rambling Discussion of the Links between the Two Sports . . .  

Page 1.0

" . . . in a broad sense, anyone who moves is a potential gymnast. When that movement has some special meaning; when it is exhilarating; when it increases human efficiency; when it is elegant or when it is loved, then that is gymnastics" - A. Bruce Frederick in Gymnastics for Men (1969)  

Most of the discussion that follows pertains to men's gymnastics. These days, when people think of gymnastics they frequently imagine small girls flying around the uneven bars or prancing across the balance beam, but historical gymnastics - in the 1700s and 1800s particularly - was largely a male enterprise, and gymnastic climbing activities were, for the most part, restricted to that gender.


Gymnastics . . .

Front Lever 1862 Indian Clubs During the 19th century and much of the first half of the 20th century the word gymnastics described many activities, including horizontal bar, parallel bars, horse, and still rings, but also weight lifting, yoga, group calisthenics, indian club juggling, human pyramid building, pole vaulting, rope, pole, or ladder climbing, etc. - forms of exercise unrelated to the modern sport of gymnastics.

 Karl Prusik

The New Gymnastics (1862)   . . .    Gymnastik für Bergsteiger (1926)   . . .    Indian Club champion (London - 1900)       

L-Cross 1950s

"The 1952 Olympics marked the start of the modernization of gymnastics . . . The 1954 World Championships in Rome saw the stabilization of the programme as we know it today . . . the individual events fixed at compulsory and voluntary exercises on six apparatus for men and four for women" - John Goodbody in The Illustrated History of Gymnastics (1982)

M. Voronin, Olympic gymnast - photo by Allan Burrows 1966

Climbing: A Natural Gymnastics . . .

The 1950s saw a subtle change in the perception of rock climbing, a sport having its origins almost three-quarters of a century earlier as an extension of hiking.

Bill Taylor, Georgia 1954 >

omparing highly publicized, and gracefully executed artistic gymnastics routines with elegant performances of top climbers on difficult rock pitches led some to conclude that climbing was less an extension of hiking, and more a form of natural gymnastics. Furthermore, it would seem that artistic  gymnasts had achieved higher skill levels and strengths than had climbers.

Of course, most rock climbers of the time avoided philosophical conjectures about the nature of their activity, and simply climbed, influenced by the climbing feats of the previous generation - a comparison with gymnastics was not on the radar screen.

.     .     .

Maltese Cross
Gymnasts pressed themselves to do the most difficult stunts in their routines ("C" level at that time), practicing until they reached perfection. If climbers were to cultivate similar strengths and adopt this attitude of intensive practice - particularly on short outcrops or boulders - standards of difficulty would surely rise.  

Richard Beckner 1956

Sporadically over the years prior to WWII certain individuals and small groups within the climbing community had approached their sport with a vigorous gymnastic attitude - notably the 'Bleausards in the 1930s. Now, a post-war generation would carry this concept into the future.

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John Bachar 1970s By the late 1960s rock climbing, treated more as gymnastics and less as extreme hiking, had acquired a more athletic aura, illuminating the humor in  remarks such as: "Strength is not important to climbing. Rushing, scrabbling or muscling up are merely dangerous" - Climbing in Britain, by J. E. Q. Barford (1947).  In the years that have followed, young and talented boulderers and rock climbers - performing essentially as gymnasts on natural apparatus - have pushed standards to amazing levels.

Jim Holloway 1970s

Elite Athletes: Gymnasts & Climbers Today . . .  

Are there elite gymnasts who are also serious climbers?  Very few, I suspect.  Modern gymnastics is so demanding and time intensive that only a truly exceptional person could pursue both. Gymnastics training programs - highly structured and inflexible - demand an athlete's total commitment. However, I have come across a few individuals who were high gymnastic achievers, but who left the sport for climbing. Again, not many.  My guess would be fewer than 5% of climbers were, or are, serious gymnasts. On the last page of this section you can find a little more on this topic.

Now, it's on to a look at actual climbing activities within historical gymnastics
A Trip into the Past . . .    

Page 1.1 Climbing Activities in Early Gymnastics. GutsMuths and Jahn. First Turnplatz.
Page 1.1a Jahn's Climbing Structures: Einbaum, Zweibaum, Bierbaum, Kimmel.
Page 1.2 Hasenheide Turnplatz. Basel Turnplatz.
Page 1.3 Ladders in Gymnastics & Climbing : 1700s to 2004 and Beyond.
Page 1.4 Masts, Poles, and Ropes. Old Harvard Gym. Dynamics. Early Women's Gymnastics.
Page 1.5 19th Century Turnplatz Illustrations.
Page 1.6 19th Century Military Gymnastics Illustrations.
Page 1.7 Military Gymnastics - an Early Climbing Wall. Acrobats of the Early 1800s & Chuck Pratt.
Page 1.8 The Late Victorians - Climbing & Gymnastics. Karl Prusik's Gymnastik fur Bergsteiger.
Page 1.9  Demise of Gymnastic Climbing Events.  Competitive Rope Climbing: History & Analysis.
Page 2.0 The Still Rings: Brief History, Rating Structure, Personal Involvement.
Page 2.1 Several Notable Rock Climbers who were Gymnasts.