History of Gymnastics on Balance Beam
This apparatus is rather lately used in competitive gymnastics. However, as apparatus for balancing it is actually as old as later body exercises. It might started with a "horizontal laying, totally round pine tree trunk..." to balance on. Jahn called it later "Schweben" (engl.: floating) which is the origin of the present name still used in Germany. The lower part of the long "Schwedenbank" (Swedish bench) still integrates the balance beam. 1934 the balance beam was part of the world championships in Budapest for the first time. That was also the first time actual women's international championships took place. The beam was only 8 cm wide. Nowadays, this discipline is not only a demonstration of feeling for balance but also of acrobatic of highest difficulty in the artistic area.
 From Balancing to Back Flips and more.... 

German version

This apparatus is rather lately used in competitive gymnastics. As apparatus for balancing, however, it is actually as old as later body exercises. Already Johan Christoph GutsMuths (1759 - 1839) dedicated one chapter to balancing in his pioneering work "Gymnastics for the Youth". His beam was a "horizontal laying, totally round pine tree trunk... of about a length of 64 feet (ca. 20 meters!). The posts wearing the trunk were of that kind that the height can be changed."

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 - 1852) takes GutsMuths' balancing on the round beam over in his "Deutsche Turnkunst" (German Art of Gymnastics, 1816), but being a declared enemy against foreign words he calls it "Schweben" (floating):

1814: Gymnastics on Jahn's "Schwebebaum"

"Schweben means being in balance: in rest as well as in action". Jahns "Schwebebaum" is "a slim, straight-grown and smooth resinous pinewood or fir tree trunk; the longer, the better, and not good under a length of 40 feet and a diameter of 10 inches at the end of the trunk. It rests between to pairs of strong posts on bolts of iron which can be put high or low". Jahn did not attach great importance to perfect stability of the apparatus, on the contrary: "It must not sway too much, not too little, but it must have the proper life" (The German Art of Gymnastics, 1816).




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1913: Gymnastics Festival in Leipzig, Gymnastics at the "Schwebekante"

The Swedish Gymnastics (Pehr Hendrik Ling; 1776 - 1839) integrates the balance beam ("Balansribba"), too. R. Gasch calls it "Schwebekante" (floating edge) and counts it to the main apparatus. Balance exercises on this beam, that was combined with the "Schwedischen Bank" (Swedish bench) is part of the "basic plan of daily Swedish exercises".

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Physical Education:
Swedish Bench

Later on this (low) balance beam was taken over into school's physical education by German followers of Ling's system, (Hugo Rothstein; first director of the Prussian Central Institution of Gymnastics in Berlin), even though Rothstein lost influence because of the "quarrel about bars" in 1863. Gymnastics pioneers Spieß (1810 - 1858) and Kloß (1818 - 1881) thought highly of this low balance beam as apparatus for girls' gymnastics.
Still the long Swedish bench with its as balance beam constructed lower part is part of the basic equipment of school gyms. The balance beam became an apparatus used all over the world.

As competition apparatus this low and narrow balance beam was never used.
When the German female gymnasts carried out their first national championships in Leibzig in 1921, there was gymnastics on high bar, parallel bars and vault, but no gymnastics on beam.
There was no change until 1934. Then, balance beam was integrated in the programme of the world championships in Budapest - the first women's world championships in history. There the beam - which was still known as "Schwebekante" - was only 8 cm wide, so that it was a remarkable feat of Hungarian Gabi Muzaros who mastered a split on this narrow edge. The Italian 14-year-old Elda Lividino stood far out of the competition field with her 9,55 points and led a new way of rhythmic art of gymnastics with her compulsory routine.

From now onwards balance beam became a standard apparatus in women's international competitive gymnastics. The routines tended to include an increasing number of acrobatic elements. As a consequence the wish for firmer foothold grew permanently stronger to enable gymnasts to perform more difficult leaps and rolls.

Thus, it is not surprising that the beam's surface was widened from 8 to 10 cm. Its sides were slightly rounded so that the middle of the beam measured 13 cm in diameter. Now, a perfect stability of the apparatus was necessary. The balance beam was not supposed "to vibrate on the stands during usage" as it says in the little Book of Norms "Measures, Regulations and Forms", edition 1965, page 30. The beam had to be adjustable between 0.80 and 1.20 m, in distances of 50 mm. However, the competition height was generally 120 cm. Its length is defined as 5 m; and that it is still today.

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1952: British Olympic preparation,
Margaret Neale

The stability of the 5 m long beam had to be ensured as well as a certain elasticity that is described in this regulation: "At a height of 1200 mm and with a testing load of 135 kg in the middle of the beam it is ought to bend a maximum of 8 mm" (Book of Norms, edition 1965, page 31). Such precise regulations highly guaranteed uniformity for international competitions; everywhere in the world the balance beam secured equal opportunities which is one of the basic laws of any fair competition in Olympic artistic gymnastics. The acrobatic coined gymnastics on beam challenged designing engineers as well as people responsible of the International Federation of Gymnastics.
In the Sixties it was mainly the then president of FIG, Artur Ganthe, who demanded in the "supplementations..." to the Book of Norms a purpose orientated design (especially in consideration of the new and more difficult kinds of moves), better stability and transportability, and in the interest of safety enough mats on the free space beneath the beam.

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1964: Worldpremiere of the 
back flip,
Erika Zuchold (GDR)

The tendency of performing acrobatic elements on beam started with the courageous deed of Leibzig's Erika Zuchold and her coach Ellen Berger at the latest: Zuchold being the first woman in the world to perform a back flip on beam (1964).

The technical consequence following these demands were already put into practise at this time: There were four instead of only two stands as underconstruction (Book of Norms 1965), two of them were installed at the beam's ends; the two inner ones in a distance of only 75 cm to the end to increase stability to a maximum.

Sheath and elastic overlay on the beam's surface: In 1965 it was not mentioned yet. It did take seven years to get the official agreement for a padded beam at the conference of the women's technical committee in Stuttgart (1973).

1987: Original neckstand, 1/1 rotation >>
Daniela Silivas (ROM)       

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When somersaults and free handsprings on beam became increasingly standard, improvements of the beam had to follow as it is stated in this demand, for instance: "The beam must have an elastic overlay... In spite of a certain elasticity it has to ensure a safe footstand and good balance. The sheath must be tearproof as well as grippy and firmly fixed to the beam" (Book of Norms by FIG).
It is commendable that the beam's width of 10 cm was not changed despite the progress in acrobatics with risky somersaults and handsprings.

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But in times to come main emphasis should again be directed to further progress of aesthetic, rhythmics, and expression. And: The surface of the beam had become more "humane"! The hard wood was replaced by an elastic overlay consisting of foam rubber (6 mm), plywood (5 mm) and the sheath of which it says in the Book of Norms (edition 1974) that it must consist of an "appropriate material of high firmness" "that allows a certain gliding of the feet as well as good footstand and balance, and is hygroskopic enough to take in a certain moisture."

<< 1981: First back flip as mount, Maxi Gnauck (GDR)

1991: Aesthetic, Rhythmics, Expression -
Svetlana Boginskaya
(URS) >>

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In 1974 only "safety of footstand" was mentioned, but in 1979 this safety is defined more precisely: Then it says: "...To prevent injuries after falls the surface must be designed to give in at least 5 mm at the maximum loading capacity at the point of load incl. edges". The risk of injury is explicitly mentioned: "The ends must be padded to prevent injuries.

Florian Schmid-Sorg)

 The official WCh-Beam of Janssen&Fritsen:

Sources: "Der Vorturner", 1927/28; "Das Turnjahrhundert der Deutschen", Götze/Herholz: Beckmanns Sportlexikon A-Z, Leipzig, Wien 1933; "Deutsche Turnzeitung", 1901; "Neue deutsche Turnzeitung", 1961, J. Leirich; "Geschichte der Turngeräte", J. Göhler/R. Spieth; "Mondsalto", gymbooks Verlag 1994, A. Götze/J. Uhr; "FlickFlack...", Sportverlag Berlin, A .Götze/H.-J. Zeume; "The History of British Gymnastics", 1988 by BAGA.

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update: 27-Aug-2001