History Tuesday: Balance Beam

Balance beam is an apparatus as old as 261 years. Johan Cristoph GutsMuth (1759-1839) actually dedicated a chapter in his book Gymnastics for Youth and you can bet that the event was around before he was published. GutsMuth described the beam as a rounded pine tree trunk about 64 feet long. Founder of Gymnastics Fredrich Jahn modified the beam by making it “float” and placing the log between two supports. He states that the beam should be no shorter than 40 feet and “It must not sway too much, not too little, but it must have the proper life” (The German Art of Gymnastics, 1816)”

The first use of the beam in competition dates to 1921 in Lebzig, the beam was still as Jahn modified from the original GutsMuth design.  In 1934 the beam was defined as 8 centimeters wide (today it’s 10) but still excessively long and flexible. By the 1950’s the length was adjusted and the use of the beam as an event for acrobatic skills started in 1964 with Erika Zuchold who was the first woman to perform a back flip on the beam. The technical changes that this evolution required meant that the beam would need to be redesigned. 2 additional legs were placed in the middle to provide stability so acro skills could be done.

As more flipping skills became prevalent more improvements were needed. In an effort to be more “humane” the wooden beam was covered with a pseudo-leather cover in 1974.

Since than, simple cartwheels have become very basic skills and the standard of skill performance hs skyrocketed. I often tell others to watch the 1976 Olympic performance of Nadia Comaneci to see what my current team girls do to warm up. Maybe a little bit of a brag, but in reality the Olympic level then is pretty standard now. (I would never take away from Nadia’s performance she was beautiful to watch).

Today’s gymnasts have much more difficult skills and the demand to raise the level of difficulty is still very real, and sometimes at the expense of a good technical performance. This video is from 2004 but it remains one of the best beam routines I have ever seen live.


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