Federal Gymnastics Festival in Basel in 1959
The white army doing its exercises. Collective callisthenics, here at the Federal Gymnastics Festival in Basel in 1959, was stylised into a ‘white army’. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Of national gymnasts and ‘sport as a spectacle’

If you want to understand what doing sport is all about in this country, it’s worth taking a look at the historical influence of gymnastics.

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

The older ones among us will reminisce with pleasure (or horror?) about our school sports lessons: under the direction of a strict PE teacher, we did gymnastic floor exercises executed with military precision, or practised high jump drills. The subject is now called ‘movement and sport’ and has added countless innovations to its repertoire: fitness, floorball (indoor hockey) and padel now compete with the types of games and exercises we recall from the traditional PE lesson. These changes are mainly to do with the fact that nowadays ‘sport’ is used as a blanket term for all forms of physical exercise, including gymnastics. Historically, however, gymnastics and sport come from completely different directions, and originally referred to two different concepts of physical training.
Gymnastics lesson at a Basel secondary school, 1897.
Gymnastics lesson at a Basel secondary school, 1897. Swiss National Museum

Sport – British performance comparison

Sport as we understand it today has its origins in 19th-century Britain, and espouses fair, open comparison of individual performance, the achievement of new records, and focus on one discipline. These ideals were propounded by a predominantly middle-class elite which, unsurprisingly, sought to carry over into sport the prevailing rational values of industrialisation. The new middle-class education ideal worked in a similar way; the training and strengthening of the body in a spirit of fair play was a perfect fit with the rules and standards postulated by civil society.

Gymnastics – German cohesion

In Germany, gymnastics also developed in the 19th century, but to begin with, individual achievement and athletic comparisons were secondary considerations. It was much more important to participate and work together in a collective, performing a highly diverse range of exercises aimed at whole-body training. This was attributable primarily to the fact that the ‘father’ of gymnastics, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, developed his concept under the shadow of Germany’s wars of liberation against Napoleon. Gymnastics was thus an ethos of training the body that had patriotic and militaristic overtones; in a way, performing group gymnastics symbolised the cohesion and unity of a national community.
The father of gymnastics: Friedrich Ludwig Jahn.
The father of gymnastics: Friedrich Ludwig Jahn. Wikimedia
Gymnastics and sport found their way across national borders in the 19th century, and into Switzerland. From then on, businesspeople and scientists with international connections played football, while teachers, lawyers and those involved in the humanities were more likely to do gymnastics. But there were also many people who had a foot in both camps; the types of ideals described above were mainly influenced by the relevant association officials, and were routinely used as weapons. Publications from the turn of the century are full of polemics as to what was the ‘correct’ concept of physical training.
In Switzerland, the gymnastics movement dominated for a long time not only numerically but also ideologically, because it had become established earlier than sport, and also won the backing of the political and government elites relatively quickly. The early Swiss gymnastics movement was closely associated with the formation of the federal state of 1848; gymnasts publicly embodied the unity of Switzerland in a democratic-liberal sense.
1906 Federal Gymnastics Festival in Bern
1906 Federal Gymnastics Festival in Bern: even now, a festival hall is still part of every gymnastics festival. Nowadays the main focus is on socialising and having fun, but until the interwar period the festival hall was a predominantly political place, at which all regions and denominations symbolically came together. So in the past, participation in a Federal Gymnastics Festival wasn’t just a sports activity; it was also a political act! ETH Library
In 1874, as part of an army reform, school gymnastics lessons were made compulsory for boys and preliminary military instruction was introduced so that the young men would be as fit as possible when they entered military service. At the same time, the Swiss gymnastics committee was set up; the organisation’s function was to oversee compliance with the compulsory gymnastics duty in the cantons and to specify appropriate forms of exercise. Until about the 1920s, the committee was made up entirely of people from the gymnastics movement; it was only after that that the organisation gradually opened up to the sports movement, and then renamed itself the Swiss gymnastics and sports committee. Gymnastics also had to make some further refinements in terms of the types of exercise it offered; the regimented equipment-based and marching exercises were becoming increasingly unpopular compared to the less rigidly structured, ‘free’ play that sport involved. As a result, many gymnastics clubs integrated track and field athletics or games such as handball into their programmes, and some gym teachers even let their students play football. As gymnastics came increasingly to take on the characteristics of a sport, a stronger emphasis was also placed on the principle of competition.
Preliminary military instruction in Berneck (Canton of St Gallen), 1947. Youtube
Despite all adaptations and harmonisation with sporting ideals in gymnastics, in the Swiss sport the gymnastic principle of collective participation, which considered the pursuit of victory to be secondary, dominated ideologically until about the 1970s. Officials and journalists constantly decried the ‘commercialisation of sport’, the ‘excessive striving for records’ and ‘sport as a spectacle’. Along with economic aspects, this was a key reason why professional sport was relatively slow to become established in Switzerland. The predominance of the gymnastics discourse was probably due, among other things, to the fact that in the past many sports associations were more heavily dependent on government subsidies than they are today. Even the sports associations had, to a certain extent, had to bow to the intermeshing of patriotism, state patronage and physical fitness, as the gymnasts had done since at least 1874. The sports-focused educational ideal of training through regulated performance comparison had to be packaged in a more patriotic and nationalistic manner.
Umzug beim Eidgenössischen Turnfest 1955 in Zürich.
Parade at the 1955 Federal Gymnastics Festival in Zurich. At a gymnastics festival, the idea was to present a national community (of men) in which everyone was equally entitled to participate. A uniform white dress code was mandatory until 1972. Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum / ASL
Gradual commodification and the spirit of individualism that was simultaneously propagated in Western societies from the 1970s onwards eventually rubbed off on the gymnastics and sports movement in Switzerland. The reciprocal influence of the two concepts ultimately became blurred in favour of the more individualistic sport. In schools, old-style gymnastics teachers began to find themselves outnumbered by PE teachers. In 1972 the preliminary lessons in Jugend+Sport (Youth+Sport) were renamed and finally opened up to girls. One last remnant of the rivalry between gymnasts and athletes, mostly observed in rural areas, has remained, however. The question of whether the village should fund a new gym hall or, alternatively, shell out for a new-generation synthetic pitch can give rise to heated discussions between exponents of the local gymnastics and football clubs.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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