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The first gymnasts were acrobats who performed in ancient Egypt. In the 2nd millennium BC, men and women of Crete (Kríti) during the age of Minoan culture developed the art of bull leaping. In bull leaping the performer would run toward a charging bull, grab its horns, and, upon being tossed into the air, execute various midair stunts before landing on the bull's back, then dismount with a flip.

In ancient Greece, three distinct programs of gymnastic exercise were developed: one for the maintenance of good physical condition, another for military training, and a third as part of the conditioning regimen for athletes. The early Greek teachers of physical fitness were the first to design systems of physical activity for both athletes and for the general citizenry. Such programs, which included gymnastics, were considered central to the formal education of children. The Greeks believed that the unity of mind and body could only be realized through participation in physical exercises. Gymnastic systems designed to give strength for military combat also were used extensively by the Romans.

In the early 1800s a form of gymnastics developed in Germany as a defined set of skills performed both with and without specific kinds of apparatus. German educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, known as the father of gymnastics, planned exercises using pieces of stationary apparatus to develop self-discipline and physical strength. The Swedish system, devised by gymnast Pehr Henrik Ling, emphasized, on the other hand, rhythm and coordination through routines practiced with hoops, clubs, and small balls.

German and Swedish immigrants to the United States in the 19th century brought their commitment to gymnastics with them. The Germans set up gymnastics clubs, or turnvereins, where families could participate together. A compromise between the German and Swedish system was introduced into school physical education programs in the United States by the end of the 19th century. European gymnastics did not, however, generally appeal to American children. Rather, the predominantly English cultural heritage had created an atmosphere in which games were preferred to the rote patterns of exercise. In fact, gymnastics did not achieve popularity in the United States until the 1970s. Gymnasts since that time who have achieved international renown include Olga Korbut of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), who won three gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany; Nadia Comaneci of Romania, who won three gold medals at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montréal, Québec, Canada; Mary Lou Retton of the United States, who won the all-around gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles; and Vitali Scherbo of the Unified Team (the designation under which athletes of the former USSR competed in 1992), who won six gold medals at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

Reviewed by: USA Gymnastics