Introducing artistic gymnastics

Words: Michael Makings | Photos: Various photographers

Artistic gymnastics, a form of gymnastics, is not just a sport; it is a lifestyle because a large amount of time, dedication, pain, and hard work is put into each skill performed. We dedicate our childhoods to perfecting these skills, which require strength, flexibility, and stamina, as well as coordination and aerial sense. Techniques that can only be learnt through hours upon hours of strength and conditioning, all working with your own body weight. And therein lies the greatest challenge – time.

Gymnastics require so much time from a very young age that a normal lifestyle seems almost impossible. There is no time for TV or parties because gymnastics requires pure dedication, without any distractions. For this reason, many gymnasts are treated differently at school and socially. To some, this may seem like an impassable obstacle, but as I said, it really is a way of life; a life where your sport teaches you so much more than how to do fancy tricks, a life that teaches you about discipline, hard work, dedication, and fighting for a better result each day.

Local talent

In South Africa, artistic gymnastics has grown quite progressively over the years and we have produced some amazing gymnasts who have achieved what most athletes only dream of. For example, Simon Hutcheon has a skill named after him in artistic gymnastics and he won the 1998 Common Wealth Games gold medal on vault. More recently, Jennifer Kwela won a silver medal at the 2010 Common Wealth Games and was the only medalist in artistic gymnasts that year. Unfortunately, gymnasts don’t receive any real recognition due to the way in which the sport is viewed in this country. It is seen as being too ‘fun’ or ‘fairylike’ as opposed to that of the more machismo-orientated majority who watch grown men manhandle each other over a rugby ball.

That aside, the standard of our artistic gymnasts has improved exponentially over the past decade, in terms of the amount of difficulty and skill required to compete on an international circuit. Although South African gymnasts have found it difficult to cope with this vast increase in difficulty, it has not deterred them. Currently, we have a number of gymnasts who not only have the potential and talent to make a mark on the international circuit but are working at it every hour of every day.

Mastering skills

Gymnasts are required to master isometric (strength), plyometric (performance), and dynamic (gross motor) skills. This is done from a very young age, where children develop their gross motive and hand eye coordination skills in a way that no other sport really can. In fact, most sports recommend that their athletes use gymnastics as cross training to assist in their specific field, such as pole vaulting, high and long jump, martial arts, CrossFit, and many others. Gymnasts train their bodies in such a way that they are able to output shorter bursts of energy as opposed to maintaining a long and consistent amount of energy, like a long distance runner. What this sort of training allows is that in a gymnast’s routine, their run will be far more succinct and powerful.


There are two types of artistic gymnasts; the Women's Artistic Gymnastics (WAG) and Men’s Artistic Gymnastics (MAG). WAG gymnasts compete on four different apparatuses: floor, beam, vault, and uneven bars. In the floor exercise, they are required to dance, as well as tumble to a piece of music of their choice that is no longer than 90 seconds. This helps them display artistic and gymnastic orientated skills. The beam is similar to floor in this exact way. The vault, however, is a 25 m runway, with a vaulting horse set at 1.25 m high. Gymnasts must run and perform a skill where they jump onto a springboard, touch the vaulting horse, and salto (a flip or somersault where the gymnast rotates around the axis of their hips) from their hands. Uneven bars require gymnasts to swing from the high to low bar and vice versa, as well as perform turns on the bar, which culminate with the all-important dismount.

MAG gymnasts are slightly different. They compete in six different apparatuses: floor, pommel, rings, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal bar. Unlike the women's floor, men gymnasts have a time limit of 70 seconds and are not required to perform their routine to music. Instead, they display artistry in a ‘non-acrobatic’ form on the floor, in addition to doing tumbles. Pommel, an apparatus where gymnasts circle on their hands and move up and down the pommel horse, is one of the most difficult apparatuses to master. It is equated to the beam for women gymnasts. Rings are known as the strong man’s event, where holding strenuous strength positions are the name of the game. Vault is the same as the women's, except the vault is 1.35 m high. On the parallel bars, gymnasts are expected to perform supporting and long-swing skills. Also known as the spectator’s event, the horizontal bars demand high-flying releases, twists and turns, and a perfect dismount.


The 2013 World Championships Artistic Gymnastics was held from 30 September to 6 October, in Belgium, and there were six gymnasts (three women: Claudia Cummins, Kirsten Beckett, and Nicole Szabo; and three men: Tiaan Grobler, Siphesihle Biyase, and myself) representing South Africa.

This year’s World Championships was an individual event championship, which means there was no team event and each country could enter three athletes in each event. Unfortunately, none of the men were able to achieve the scores needed to receive a Common Wealth ranking for next year’s Games. However, we have another opportunity at the Africa Champs to be held next year.

In addition to the Africa Championships, which will be held on home soil next year, South African gymnasts can look forward to the 2014 Common Wealth Games and Youth Olympics for young and up and coming gymnasts.

Join up

Even though artistic gymnastics is a tough and demanding sport, the benefits are numerous. The movements involved help develop strength and eye and foot, improve speed, grace, control, concentration, and competitive energy, as well as hone social skills. Taking the time to practise gymnastics will enrich a person’s life with valuable lessons, such as relationships, challenges, victories, defeat, and other realities they will face for the rest of their life.


For more information on artistic gymnastics or to find out if there is a gymnastics club near you, visit

Fast facts

• The term "Artistic Gymnastics" was first used in the 19th century.
• The word ‘gymnastics’ comes from the Greek word ‘gymnos’, which means naked. In Ancient Greece, most athletic competitions took place in the nude.
• It is one of the world’s oldest sports and can be traced back thousands of years.
• To enter into Olympic competition, a gymnast has to be 16 or older.
• A 'perfect 10' is no longer the top score in gymnastics.
• Open-ended scoring was introduced in 2006.