When you tell folks that you've done gymnastics, most automatically ask you if you did the rings. No, I would explain. It's not one of the women's apparatuses. But why is it the men's and women's gymnastics can look like completely different sports? In all of the Olympic sports, women and men do not compete head-to-head, but the game's the same. The world record time for women in the 100 meter sprint might be a touch slower than the men's best times, but the race itself is identical. Why don't we get to do the rings?
First, a little refresher course in the different apparatuses in case you haven't spent the week glued to the Olympic gymnastics competition: The men compete on the floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, and high bar. The women's four are vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor.
As you can see that the men and women only match up on two events — vault and floor, which are both tumbling/leg events. (We'll leave aside for now the fact that women perform to music and have dance requirements in addition to flipping.) While the remaining apparatuses obviously share similarities with one another — pommel horse and beam both require an inordinate amount of balance (though in the case of the pommels, the balancing takes place exclusively on the gymnast's hands), they do not make the same demands on the competitors. And while the uneven bars has evolved to become more like men's high bar, an event like rings has no equivalent in the women's program. None of the apparatuses demand static strength poses and holds from female gymnasts.
But was it always like this? Were the four events that we associate with women's gymnastics always the ones that were performed at the Olympic level since female gymnasts first competed at the Games in 1928?
No. Back when women first joined the men at the highest level, the men's and women's apparatuses were still in flux and the women didn't compete for individual accolades, just in the team event. At those earliest Games, men competed in events that have since been discarded, such as the rope climb.
From FIG's website:
In 1936, the individual apparatus events for men consisted of free exercises (forerunner of 'floor'), rings, side (pommel) horse, parallel bars, horizontal bars, and long horse, a similar apparatus programme as compared to today. The women in 1936 competed individually, earning team points, showing both a compulsory and an optional exercise on parallel bars, balance beam, side horse vault, as well as in 2 optional team drills — one free hand and one with hand apparatus. In 1948, the women even competed in a compulsory exercise on the rings.
I spoke with Laddie Bakanic, 88, who had been a member of the 1948 U.S. women's gymnastics team that won a team bronze medal at the Olympics and performed on the "flying rings" as they were known in her day.
"When I was on the flying rings and I had to leave go I was scared cause there was nothing there but a cotton mat on the ground," she recalled, adding that there were male spotters hovering nearby just in case.
The paucity of proper safety equipment is part of the reason that gymnastics was much less acrobatic back in Bakanic's day. The rules were also quite cautious as a result. For instance, the balance beam that Bakanic competed on was a solid block of wood without the springs of today's apparatus, and she and her peers were not permitted to do flips on it.
"We were not allowed to do certain things, those back bends or even splits," she commented even though many had skills like handstands.
"Today you do anything that you can do," she said, noting the difference between her day and the present. (Well, that's mostly true. The sport's governing body has forbidden certain moves for women, such as roll-out tumbling skills that are now back in style on the men's side, because they're considered dangerous. Also, certain risky elements have been awarded very low score rating in order to discourage their widespread adoption, such as a one-arm giant swing on the uneven bars. Though this skill is often performed by the men on high bar, when Liu Xuan of China became the first woman to compete one and connect it to a release move, it was given an absurdly low difficulty mark. As a result, it hasn't been attempted since.)
Bakanic noted that while she was a gymnast at the Sokol School in New York, she practiced on both the uneven bars and the parallel ones, which are now exclusively a men's event.
Bakanic retired after her medal winning performance in 1948 and doesn't know why p-bars or flying rings or hand apparatuses were dropped for the women. (The hand apparatuses, such as ribbons and balls, later end up becoming their own discipline, the sport of rhythmic gymnastics.) But it seems that during the four years after Bakanic stopped competing, women's gymnastics completed its evolution into the sport most of recognize, with competition only on vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise.
1952 was a watershed year in the sport. It was the first time female gymnasts were allowed to vie for individual honors as well as team medals at the Olympic Games. From that point forward, the women's apparatuses no longer seemed to be in flux. Gymnasts like Hungary's Agnes Keleti, a Holocaust survivor, and the USSR's Larisa Latynina, whose medal record was just shattered by Michael Phelps, were amongst the sports first female individual champions.
While it's hard to track down information on this primitive era, very informed speculation suggests that it was a combination of women's physical attributes and gender norms that contributed to the apparatus selection.
The women were given the danciest of events. As Bakanic noted, during the early days of the balance beam, the gymnasts were not doing flips. They were doing turns, balancing poses, and later, leaps — stuff taken right out of ballet classes. In fact, many of the early champion such as Latynina began their careers as dancers.
And though the women performed on the same floor exercise that the men performed on — meaning thin mats spread out over hard, unforgiving surfaces — the ladies alone were tasked with dancing to music.
It wasn't just the equipment that was different in the 40s and 50s. The athletes' bodies were also unlike how they are now. Back then, the athletes were older, post-pubescent women, not the slight teenagers that we've become accustomed to seeing in the post-Olga Korbut era. Their bodies were not ideal for some of the acrobatics that the men were starting to perform. With a heavier lower half, skills like giant swings would be extremely difficult and tiring. And the sport's early rule makers probably couldn't imagine a time when young teenage girls whose bodies were relatively curveless would be competing. They probably never thought that the women would start approaching the men's difficulty levels.
This is likely the reason that they were tasked with performing on the uneven bars, which at first were really just a modified set of parallel bars, created by raising one of two rails to its highest setting. The advantages of the early uneven bars over the high bar is that it allowed the competitor to briefly pause, rest her lower body on the bottom rung while grasping the top. Also, in the early days the emphasis was not on swinging or fast twitch movements. Gymnasts often competed static balance poses on the event.
The uneven bars only took a giant leap forward in 1966 when American Doris Fuchs-Brause performed a revolutionary routine that involved quick turns and bar changes. Sadly, like many trendsetters, she wasn't rewarded for her work and failed to qualify to the event finals at the world championships.
Today's female gymnasts would have no problem competing on the high bar. It is now common anyway to practice on a single rail anyway to master giant swings and release moves. In fact, many taller gymnasts would probably love to not have to worry about bending their bodies in half on swings to clear the lower rail.
The rings have also changed from the apparatus that Bakanic competed on in '48. In the past, the point was to pick up swing, which would've been easier for women to do. Nowadays, they're called the still rings and the emphasis is keeping the wires as motionless as possible as you move from one strength part to another. This was probably viewed as impossible for women's relatively weaker upper bodies.
In fact, three of the four events the women compete on are "jumping" or leg events. While beam tests balance too, the skills done on the four-inch wide plank are tumbling in nature. This explains why you have gymnasts like Aly Raisman, who is exceptional on beam, floor, and vault, but fairly weak on the uneven bars. The first three draw on a similar skill and strength set. Bars, however, is completely different.
Bakanic has enjoyed watching gymnastics evolve as it has and grow in global popularity. And she is astounded by what today's female gymnasts can do.
"They're unbelievable," she said.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess . She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.