Jack Günthard competing in the mid-1950s.
ETH Bibliothek, Image Archive

The nation’s favourite gymnast

Jakob ‘Jack’ Günthard wasn’t just a successful athlete – he was also a media star. In the 1970s, he had Switzerland on its feet and keeping fit with his own television programme.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

Jakob Günthard was the Roger Federer of his day: he had charisma, a flair for marketing himself and, of course, a successful sporting career. The Zurich native infected the whole of Switzerland with the artistic gymnast virus and turned gymnastics into a event for the whole family. When he and his teammates went into action, the stadiums filled. It’s largely thanks to the ‘nation’s favourite gymnast’ that the Swiss Gymnastics Federation (Schweizerische Turnverband), with around 380,000 members nationwide, is one of the country’s biggest sporting associations.

Günthard, who completed his Matura school-leaving examinations during his apprenticeship as a typesetter, started out as a gymnast. He won gold on the horizontal bars at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, and took two gold medals at the European championships in Paris five years later. By then, Günthard was already 37 years old. After eventually giving up athletics, he turned to coaching. But in Italy, rather than Switzerland. The Gymnastics Federation rejected his application for the job of Swiss national coach. Jakob Günthard was too modern for the people in charge. Frustrated, the nation’s top gymnast headed south instead, and won the team bronze with Italy at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Four years later, Franco Menichelli won gold on the floor in Tokyo. These achievements impressed the Swiss Gymnastics Federation, and with Switzerland’s athletes continuing to trail behind the high-flying Italians, there was only one solution: they needed to bring in Jakob Günthard to coach the Swiss national team.

Jack Günthard in 1956 at an event in the USA.

Jack Günthard won two gold medals at the 1957 European Championships in Paris.

Back on home turf, Jakob Günthard immediately started making changes to the team’s coaching structures. He also sought to bring a new level of professionalism into the sport – using video to analyse the gymnasts’ errors, for example. But it was his gymnastics shows on radio and TV that turned him into a real star. In the 1970s, Jakob Günthard could be heard on Radio Beromünster. Every morning between seven and eight, in his show ‘Frühturnen mit Jack’ (Morning gymnastics with Jack), he got Mr and Mrs Swiss moving. Later on Günthard broke into television where, dressed in trendy training gear, he gave out and demonstrated tips and tricks for a healthy daily routine. The programme was given the name ‘Fit mit Jack’ (Fit with Jack), and was a huge success. In 1974 Günthard published a book of the same name, which was likewise a big hit with the public.

‘Fit mit Jack’ was dropped from the programming schedule in 1976. But even today Switzerland’s ‘fitness guru’ still enjoys cult status in certain circles, and is often linked or cited. Jack Günthard died on 7 August 2016 at the age of 96. He was as fit as a fiddle well into his golden years, and really did credit to his own fitness ethos.

Jack Günthard, the nation’s favourite gymnast, 1976.

Radio show with Jack Günthard, 1975.

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