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1896 19th Century MAG Olympics

1896: Gymnastics at the Olympic Games

Nowadays, we see the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of sports, and we have romanticized the first modern Olympics in Athens.

But, to understand the gymnastics competition at the 1896 Olympic Games, we need to set aside those notions.

By and large, the gymnastics community didn’t see the first Olympic Games as a glorious revival of an ancient tradition. In fact, most of the European gymnastics federations turned down their invitations.

Weingärtner

Historical Context | Early Olympic Games | Responses to the Invitation | The Program | The Rules | The Results with Commentary | The Awards | Judging | The Naysayers | Appendix: The Battle in Le Gymnaste | Appendix: German Resistance to the Olympics

Historical Context

It was a different world in 1896. We were still in the age of European empires. Painting the end of the nineteenth century with a very broad brush…

  • In 1896, Spain was clinging to the last of its American and Pacific colonies, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.
  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled a large chunk of Europe, including present-day Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and parts of Poland, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, and Montenegro.
  • The Russian Empire (i.e. Imperial Russia) was competing with Germany, France, and Great Britain as they tried to expand their empires in Asia. France, for instance, had established French Indochina, which included present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
  • In 1881, France established a protectorate on Tunisia.
    • By the end of the 19th century, the Scramble for Africa (i.e. the proliferation of conflicting European claims to African territories) was in full swing.
    • By 1900, a significant part of Africa had been colonized mainly by Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
  • The United States had 45 states. Utah became the 45th state in January of 1896.

Other historical tidbits from 1896: 

  • Puccini’s opera La Bohème premiered in Paris.
  • Stanford and the University of California played each other in the first known women’s basketball game between two colleges.
  • In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld racial segregation.

That’s a bit of what was happening in the world around the time of the first Olympic Games. Except it wasn’t truly the first modern Olympic Games…


The Olympic Games before the Olympic Games

It’s important to recognize that this wasn’t the first Olympic Games. According to historian J. K. Rühl, there were 13 Olympic Games that fell within the time period before the revival of the Games by Coubertin:

Robert Dover’s Olympick Games

  • Cotswolds, United Kingdom
  • 1612-1999

Drehberg Olympic Games

  • Near Dessau, Germany
  • 1776-99; 1840-42; since 1989

Les Jeux Olympiques du Rondeau

  • Grenoble, France
  • 1832-1954

Ramlösa Olympic Games

  • Sweden
  • 1834, 1836

Montréal Olympic Games

  • Canada
  • 1844

Much Wenlock Olympian

  • Much Wenlock, England
  • Since 1850

New York Olympic Games

  • United States
  • 1853

Shropshire Olympian Games

  • Shropshire, England
  • 1860-62; 1864

Evangelis’ Zappas Olympic Games 

  • Athens, Greece
  • 1859; 1870; 1875; 1888/1889

National Olympic Games

  • England
  • 1866-68; 1875; 1877; 1883

Liverpool Grand Olympic Festivals

  • Liverpool, England
  • 1862-1967

Morpeth Olympic Games

  • Northumberland, England
  • 1870-1958

Lake Palić Olympic Games

  • Near Subotica, Serbia
  • 1880-1914

Also: During the French Federal Festival of Gymnastics, there were the “Olympic Games” (“Jeux Olympiques”), which consisted of the following events:

  • One or two lifts of a stone with one arm
  • One lift with two arms
  • A throw of a stone with an approach
  • A throw of a stone without an approach
  • A free preliminary exercise
  • A combined long and high jump with an approach
  • One or more wrestling matches

(Le Gymnaste, January 18, 1896)


The Responses of Gymnastics Federations to the Invitation

On January 18, 1896, the French publication Le Gymnaste printed the responses of various European gymnastics federations. As I said in the introduction, most of the countries turned down their invitations and provided the following rationale for their absences.

Belgium

The members of the Standing Commission and the Technical Committee consulted are of the opinion that the principles established by the program of the Olympic Games are not in conformity with those of the Belgian Federation. The Federal Council, meeting in Brussels on October 20, decided that there was no reason to join. Travel costs will be a material impediment to the participation of Belgian gymnasts.

The invitations were not made in accordance with the stipulations of the international convention of July 23, 1881.

Note: The rules for invitations for the fédérations européennes de gymnastique (European Federations of Gymnastics) were as follows:

“As a result, Federal Committees will only invite federated societies to federal events, through the Federal Committees of each country.”

“En conséquence, les Comités fédéraux n’inviteront aux solennités fédérales que des sociétés fédérées, et ce, par l’intermédiaire des Comités fédéraux de chaque pays.”

Qtd. in Le Gymnaste, December 12, 1896

Czech

The correspondence was unsuccessful and we do not know the decision made.

Germany

The German Gymnastics Federation was neither consulted nor invited. When it is, it will have to decline the invitation because of the complete difference in tendencies. (Decision of the Federal Council of July 22, 1895.)

Note: German gymnasts attended the 1896 Olympic Games, but they weren’t considered official delegates of the German Gymnastics Federation, which caused a lot of problems. More on that below.

France

The Standing Committee fears the disintegration of forces that support physical exercises by scattering the members. French gymnasts will not be able to go to Athens in 1896, since they will have to be at the same time at the XXII Federal Festival of Gymnastics (April 4-6, 1896) in Algiers.

The French Union’s response sparked a contentious debate in the pages of Le Gymnaste. Details below.

Note: For an example of a French Federal Festival, head over to this post.

Switzerland

The Federal Council of November 16-17, 1895, on the proposal of the Central Committee, declined the invitation to the Olympic Games. Each section can nevertheless join in isolation. The reasons are that the new form given to the Olympic Games does not fit within the framework of Swiss societies and favors sports too much.

Italy

The Federal Council, meeting in Rome on November 17, 1895, was unable to accept the courteous invitation to the Olympic Games of 1896 because the Third National Competition on September 20 last consumed all its financial resources.

The Netherlands

The Dutch Federation cannot endorse the trends and program of the Olympic Games Committee and will therefore refrain from joining. Dutch gymnasts will not be able to take part in the 1896 Olympic festival due to the distance.

Norway

Many of the exercises listed in the Olympic Games program are practiced by several Norwegian societies. But their essential goal remains the practice and improvement of gymnastics. The Norwegian Federation has great sympathy for the efforts to resuscitate the Olympic Games, but regrets that the long journey and the consequent expense prevent them from accepting the invitation.

Sweden

Several of the Swedish societies practice gymnastics and sports at the same time. They often carry the title of “Gymnastik and Idrotts (sport) forening” and consider sports as a complement to gymnastics. Major V. Balk, Federal President, did not hesitate to be part of the Olympic Games Committee while considering it a mistake to modernize the Olympic Games as much as the Athens program does. Distance and time will probably prevent gymnasts from going to Athens in 1896.

The Program

In many of the countries’ responses, they noted their opposition to the program. Originally, the gymnastics competition was supposed to consist of:

  • Rope climb
  • Various strength moves (rétablissements divers) on horizontal bar 
  • Movements on rings
  • Parallel Bars
  • Vault
  • Weight work
The original program for the Olympics

The competition ended up consisting of…

Individual work on:

  • Long-horse vault
  • Pommel Horse
  • Rings
  • High Bar
  • Parallel Bars
  • Rope Climb

And simultaneous ensemble routines on:

  • Parallel Bars
  • High Bar

There was supposed to be an ensemble routine with club swinging (similar to rhythmic gymnastics today), but that competition never happened.

Les Jeux Olympiques, Supplément du Messager d’Athènes, April 18, 1896

Dr. Ferdinand Hueppe from Prague was one of the judges at the Olympic Games. According to him, the 1896 program was lacking. It was too focused on acrobatics and apparatus gymnastics, which weren’t balanced by other events like track and field events:

The apparatus exercises have unfortunately become more and more an end in themselves and degenerated into acrobatics on the device; they are no longer just a means to the end of the achievement of agility, body control, and courage. The gymnasts still imagine, however, that the harmonious development is only guaranteed by the equipment and that these are the most important things. The English, who are quite unbiased in this, regard gymnastics as an apparatus sport and see it as the domain of the Germans alone. In Germany itself, however, it is customary to combine three apparatus with three athletic exercises to form a group, in Italy four apparatus are combined, and in England three apparatus, and take the value of the achievements from the mean.

Die Geräthübungen sind leider immer mehr Selbstzweck geworden und zu einer Akrobatik an den Geräthen ausgeartet; sie sind längst nicht mehr nur Mittel zum Zweck der Erzielung von Gewandtheit, Körperbeherrschung und Muth. Die Turner bilden sich aber immer noch ein, dass die harmonische Durchbildung gerade nur durch die Geräthe gewährleistet sei und dass diese das Wichtigste sind. Die Engländer, die darin recht unbefangen sind, betrachten das Turnen nach seiner thatsächlichen Ausführung als Geräthesport und sehen darin allein die Domäne der Deutschen. In Deutschland selbst pflegt man allerdings drei Geräthe mit drei athletischen Uebungen zu einer Gruppe zu vereinigen, in Italien vereinigt man vier Geräthe und in England drei Geräthe und nimmt aus dem Mittel den Werth der Leistungen.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

Side Note: On the high bar, the gymnasts were supposed to perform different strength elements (rétablissements). At the time, “rétablissements” included skills like hip pullovers and muscle-ups — as you can see in this book from 1913.

The Rules

The IOC was in charge of creating the rules for the competition. As Raymond Barrull writes in Les étapes de la gymnastique au sol et aux agrès en France et dans le monde:

But officially the regulations were set by the IOC, and no reference appears in the program to any other regulations (while this is the case for the other disciplines: running: USFSA regulations; fencing: regulations of the Paris Encouragement Society; tennis: regulations of the All England Tennis Association, etc.).

Mais officiellement le règlement fut fixé par le C.I.O., et aucune référence n’apparaît dans le programme à un quelconque autre règlement (alors que c’est le cas pour les autres disciplines: course à pied: règlement de l’USFSA; escrime: règlement de la Société d’encouragement de Paris; tennis: règlement de la All England Tennis Association, etc.).

A few of the rules for gymnastics have survived in this document:

Amateur Status

Is Amateur: Anyone who has never taken part in a competition open to everyone, nor competed for a cash prize or a sum of money, from whatever source it comes, including field admissions, or with professionals, and who has never been at any period of his life, teacher or salaried instructor of physical exercises. Whoever obtains money by means of the prizes he has won, thereby loses his status as an amateur.

Est Amateur: Toute personne qui n’a jamais pris part à un concours ouvert à tous venants, ni concouru pour un prix en espèces ni pour une somme d’argent, de quelque source qu’elle provienne, notamment des admissions sur le terrain, ou avec des professionels, et qui n’a jamais été à aucune période de sa vie, professeur ou moniteur salarié d’exercises physiques. Celui qui se procure de l’argent au moyen des prix qu’il a gagnés, perd par là même, sa qualité d’amateur.

Jeux Olympiques, Athènes, 5-15 April, 1896: Programme détaillé pour les sports athlétiques et la gymnastique 

On the Judges

I. A Committee of Ephors, whose decision will be final in all cases not provided for in the Rules of Races and Competitions.

II. Two Judging Committees: One for Athletic Sports, the other for Gymnastics. In each of these two Committees, there will be a representative of each of the different countries which will take part in the Games.

III. Each of the two Committees will appoint a President-Arbitrator, whose decisions will be final in the event of a difference of opinion among the Judges. The Judges will have all the power to disqualify the competitors guilty of any infraction.

I. Un Comité d’ Éphores, dont la décision sera sans appel dans tous les cas non prévus par le Règlement des Courses et Concours.

II. Deux Comités de Juges: L’un pour les Sports athlétiques, L’autre pour la Gymnastique. Dans chacun des ces deux Comités, il y aura un représentant de chacun des différents pays qui prendront part aux Jeux.

III. Chacun des deux Comités nommera un Président-Arbitre, dont les décisions seront sans appel dans le cas d’une différence d’ opinion parmi les Juges. Les Juges auront tout pouvoir de disqualifier les concurrents coupables d’une infraction quelconque.

Note: The Ephors were the elected leaders of ancient Sparta.

Fees for Inquiries

Any complaint against a competitor or against his qualification as an amateur, must be made to the Committee of Ephors, or to the Committee of Judges, in writing, before the prizes are awarded; it must be supported by the deposit of a sum of 20 francs, which will not be returned until the complaint has been accepted.

Toute réclamation contre un concurrent ou contre sa qualification comme amateur, devra être faite au Comité des Éphores, ou au Comité des Juges, par écrit, avant que les prix soient décernés; elle devra être appuyée au dépôt d’ une somme de 20 francs, qui ne sera rendue qu’ autant que la réclamation aura été admise.

This rule presupposed the ability to read and write and the financial means to pay 20 francs. Nowadays, the first inquiry costs 300 CHF (roughly $325 USD).

Technical Regulations, 2022

Gymnastics-Specific Rules

1. For the individual exercises, the time afforded to each competitor will be 2 minutes.

2. For the ensemble movements, the time according to each team will be 4 minutes.

3. The Societies will not be able to present teams with fewer than 10 gymnasts.

1. Pour les exercices individuels le temps accordé à chaque concurrent sera de 2 minutes.

2. Pour les mouvements d’ ensemble le temps accordé à chaque équipe sera de 4 minutes.

3. Les Sociétés ne pourront présenter d’ équipes inférieures à 10 gymnastes.

On the Scoring

As far as I know, the official documentation for scoring the routines has never been found. Much of our understanding of the matter comes from the recounting of the Greek competitor Chrisafis.

The following passage gives you an idea of how things were scored:

For synchronized team execution (high bars, parallel bars) the assessment was done as follows: Each judge assessed three factors simultaneously, i.e. synchronization (general team performance), rhythm and technique. For the above three factors each judge produced three scores from zero to 20.. The secretary added all the scores and then divided the sum of the seven judges. This means that if a team was awarded perfect scores from all judges then the final score would be 20+20+ 20Χ7:7 = 60.

Georgios Papadopoulos et al. “Main Characteristics of Rules and Competition Systems in Gymnastics from 1896 to 1912”

See also: Kaimakamis, et al. “The Rules for Gymnastics in the First International Olympic Games in Athens (1896)” Available here.


The Results with Commentary

Team Parallel Bars

  1. Team of Mr. Hoffmann, Germany
  2. Greece (Penellinios Gymnastikos Syllogos)

According to Dr. Hueppe, a judge at the competition, the Greek team was flashy with little substance:

There were three ensembles on the parallel bars, two Greek, one from a gymnasium in Athens, the other from all Greek gymnastics clubs. The exercises were only moderately difficult and ended with hops and group positions that had nothing to do with bar gymnastics […] The hops pleased the people and even some of the judges. The German team, which had only chosen difficult exercises, unfortunately at the beginning showed a little uncertainty due to the unwellness of a gymnast, performed extremely deliberately.

 Beim Barren traten drei Riegen an, zwei griechische, von denen eine aus einem Gymnasium in Athen, die andere aus allen griechischen Turnvereinen zusammen­gestellt war. Die Uebungen waren nur mittelschwer und endigten mit einem Gehopse und mit Gruppen­stellungen, die mit Barrenturnen gar nichts zu thun hatten; […] Das Gehopse gefiel aber den Leuten und sogar einigen Preisrichtern. Die deutsche Riege, welche nur schwere Uebungen gewählt hatte, leider anfangs unter dem Unwohlsein eines Turners eine kleine Unsicherheit zeigte, turnte ganz ausserordentlich überlegen.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

The Official Report was in agreement and recognized the superiority of the German gymnasts: 

Three teams were inscribed for this contest, that of the National Association of Athens, that of the Panhellenian Association, and the German team. The Greek teams comprised a larger number of champions, and we cannot help praising the gracefulness and agility which were remarked in everyone. The applause of their countrymen was showered on them after each exercise. The first team was under the command of Mr. Chrysaphis, the second under that of Mr. Athanasopoulos, the German as well as the Greek teams showed in their attire their national colours the Greeks wore light blue and white, the Germans black and white. The Germans carried off the first prize, having gone through their difficult exercises with a precision and regularity that everybody recognised the superior training they had received. The admiration of the crowd showed itself in loud cheering for the first time since the beginning of the festival the German flag was hoisted and saluted with respect.

The Olympic Games, B.C. 776 – A.D. 1896, Published with the sanction and under the patronage of the Central Committee in Athens, presided over by His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Constatine

Note: I will refer to this document as the Official Report

However, the IOC’s official magazine had a different take:

The Greek teams had more grace, more harmony, more naturalness even in the whole of the movements, […] the German team more precision, and an energetic stiffness of an admirable regularity.

Les équipes grecques avaient plus de grâce, plus d’harmonie, plus de naturel même dans l’ensemble des mouvements, […] l’équipe allemande plus de précision, et une raideur énergique d’une admirable régularité.

Les Jeux Olympiques, Supplément du Messager d’Athènes, April 10, 1896

Team High Bar

  1. Team of Mr. Hoffmann, Germany

Only one team entered. The Germans did “splendid gymnastics.” 

The ensemble gymnastics brought no competition on the horizontal bar, since only the Germans put up an ensemble that did splendid gymnastics.

Das Riegenturnen brachte beim Reck keine Concurrenz, da nur die Deutschen eine Riege stellten, die prachtvoll turnte.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

On that front, the IOC’s magazine was in agreement:

The exercises [of the German team] on the high bar were admired by all. They were executed in a manner that is almost impeccable.

Les exercices sur la Barre fixe ont fait l’admiration de tous. Ils ont été exécutés d’une manière pour ainsi dire impeccable.

Les Jeux Olympiques, Supplément du Messager d’Athènes, April 10, 1896

Parallel Bars

  1. Alfred Flatow, Germany
  2. Louis Zutter, Switzerland
Alfred Flatow

Horizontal Bar

  1. Hermann Weingärtner, Germany
  2. Alfred Flatow, Germany

Though Schuhmann didn’t finish in the top two, he was a crowd favorite because he did a routine full of circus tricks:

In my opinion, Roestel was as good as the second. Schuhmann, who understood the Greek public quickly, said that now he would show the people something, and now he did wonderful circus tricks, so that there was great cheering and people could not understand that he was not the winner; even two judges had fallen into this trap, proving their lack of understanding.

Nach meiner An­sicht war Röstel ebensogut wie der Zweite. Schu­mann, der das griechische Publicum schnell ver­stand, sagte, jetzt würde er den Leuten mal was zeigen, und machte nun wunderbare Circustrics, so dass heller Jubel ertönte und die Leute gar nicht begreifen konnten, dass er nicht Sieger wurde; sogar zwei Preisrichter waren auf diesen Leim gekrochen, um ihr mangelndes Verständniss zu beweisen.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

The IOC’s magazine criticized Flatow’s performance:

Mr. Flatow, German, is admirable too, although he works with more stiffness and consequently less elegance than the Hellenic champion [i.e. Papayannopoulou].

M. Flatow, allemand, est admirable aussi, bien qu’il travaille avec plus de raideur et moins d’élégance par conséquent que le champion hellène.

Vault

  1. Carl Schuhmann, Germany
  2. Louis Zutter, Switzerland

Note: The gymnasts had two minutes to perform as many vaults as possible, as well as possible.

Schuhmann had become a bit of a crowd favorite:

With the victory of the people’s favorite Schuhmann rose a never-ending cheer.

Beim Siege des Volkslieblings Schumann erhob sich ein gar nicht endenwollender Jubel.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

The Official Report also mentioned Schuhmann’s standing with the crowd:

In that contest 17 Champions took part, but there was only one Hellene amongst them, M. Petmezas of Patras, the rest comprised a Bulgarian, Mr. Champoff, Mr. Zutter a Swiss, and several Hungarians and Germans. Mr. Schumann, (German), won the first prize. This gentleman, who became very popular among the Greeks, was an Athlete of small stature, but of strong and muscular build. To Mr. Zutter was awarded the second prize. For the third time on that afternoon the German flag was hoisted above the entrance.

Zutter performed a somersault (likely a handspring) on vault:

He vaults from strength to strength to the applause of all the spectators. He finishes with a somersault on the horse’s croup.

Il saute de mieux eu mieux aux applaudissements de tous les spectateurs Il termine par le saut périlleux sur la croupe du cheval.

Les Jeux Olympiques, Supplément du Messager d’Athènes, April 10, 1896

Falls are an opportunity for comedy:

Mr. Sjoeberg, Swedish, who comes after, has too much momentum and sticks his nose… in the sand. He immediately gets up and starts again successfully. But his ardor and belief in his ways cause him to fail and to fall again, which makes the amphitheater laugh happily.

M.Sjoeberg, suédois, qui vient après, prend trop bien son élan et donne du nez… dans le sable. Il se relève immédiatement et recommence avec succès. Mais son ardeur et la conviction dans ses moyens le font de nouveau manquer de choir, ce qui fait rire joyeusement l’amphithéâtre.

Les Jeux Olympiques, Supplément du Messager d’Athènes, April 10, 1896

It wasn’t very clear to the audience how vault was judged. In the recounting of the event in the IOC’s magazine, it seemed like every competitor could have won. For example, Kakas of Hungary:

Here is Kakas, a young Hungarian, dressed all in black and silk, who attracts the attention of true connoisseurs with his pleasing shapes. See it, because it will stand out in almost any upcoming exercise. He indeed performed the big vault admirably and overtook all the competitors.

Voici Kakas, un jeune hongrois, tout de noir et de soie vêtu, qui attire l’attention des vrais connaisseurs par ses formes heureuses. Voyez-le, car il se fera remarquer dans presque tous les exercices à venir. Il a, en effet, admirablement exécuté le grand saut et a dépassé tous les concurrents.

Les Jeux Olympiques, Supplément du Messager d’Athènes, April 10, 1896

Or maybe Champoff of Bulgaria:

Mr. Champoff, Bulgarian, who closes the series, is a solid boy with a blond and energetic face. He is admired by the public with his beautiful vaults, but in the penultimate exercise he catches the vaults’s head a little from the croup. But his last turning vault seems, although it is last on the program, to designate him for the first rank.

M. Champoff, bulgare, qui clôt la série, cet un solide girçon à la figure blonde et énergique. Il fait l’admiration du public par ses beaux , sauts, mais à l’avant-dernier exercice il accroche un peu de la croupe la tète du cheval. Mais son dernier saut tournant semble, quoique poi té dernier sur le programme, le désigner pour le premier rang.

Les Jeux Olympiques, Supplément du Messager d’Athènes, April 10, 1896

But neither Champoff nor Kakas finished in the top two.

Pommel Horse

  1. Louis Zutter, Switzerland
  2. Hermann Weingärtner, Germany

There was no question that Louis Zutter was the winner:

Mr. Zutter surpassed all other competitors by his marvellous agility and he very deservedly carried off the first prize.

Official Report

Rings

  1. Ioannis Mitropoulos, Greece
  2. Hermann Weingärtner, Germany

The final decision on rings was made by Prince George of Greece and Denmark, and he chose his countryman. In Hueppe’s view, Weingärtner should have won.

Weingärtner did extraordinary gymnastics, performed strength and dexterity exercises in a perfect manner and is currently probably the best gymnast on rings in the whole world. The Greek only did strength exercises, so that he did not fulfill part of the prescription, and repeated the same exercise far too often; besides, his demeanor was only moderate. But the severity of some of the exercises made three of the seven judges ignore these concerns, and Prince George then decided in favor of the Greek. Based on my gymnastics experience, I have to describe this decision as unreasonable. The Greek was absolutely no match for Weingärtner.

Weingärtner turnte ganz ausserordentlich, brachte Kraft- und Gewandtheitsübungen in voll­endeter Weise zur Darstellung und ist zur Zeit wohl der beste Turner an Ringen in der ganzen Welt. Der Grieche brachte nur Kraftübungen, so dass er einen Theil der Vorschrift nicht erfüllte, und wiederholte dieselbe Uebung viel zu oft; ausserdem war seine Haltung nur mässig. Aber die Schwere einiger der Uebungen liess drei von den sieben Kampfrichtern über diese Bedenken weg­sehen, und Prinz Georg entschied dann für den Griechen. Diese Entscheidung muss ich aus meinen turnerischen Erfahrungen heraus als unbillig be­zeichnen. Der Grieche reichte absolut nicht an Weingärtner heran.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

The Greek audience had been waiting a long time for their first-place finish, and when it happened, they erupted into cheers.

It was not until a quarter past five on Thursday that the Greek flag was up, when the judges decided that Metropoulos had surpassed the others in the gymnastic exercise with the rings. Then the difference was made manifest between generous applause hitherto bestowed on foreigners and real delight in victory, all the more intense for the long delay and the disappointment. Then it was that if the seats had not rested upon solid earth they might have come down. The young victor after being carried about on the shoulders of the crowd went to the dressing-room, kissed by his father and brother as he passed them. At last the Greeks had an Olympionikes, although it was only in a minor feat of gymnastics. But greater things were yet to come.

Rufus Richardson, “The New Olympian Games,” Scribner’s Magazine, September 1896

The Official Report adds that the king couldn’t control himself.

The anouncement of the jury was received with such frantic applause, such enthusiastic shouts that even the King could not help joining in it. When the Greek flag was seen waving over their heads a new fit of enthusiasm seized the people; hats were thrown into the handkerchiefs and flags were waved and shouts of God save Greece ! God bless the nation! resounded from all parts of the Stadion.

Official Report
Weingärtner

Rope Climb (14 meters, arms only)

  1. Nikolaos Andriacopoulos, Greece
  2. Thomas Xenakis, Greece

Here’s how the Official Report described the competition:

Five competitors took part in that most difficult and attractive sport. Mr. Andriakopoulos of Patras, member of the Panachaean Association, began this graceful game in which he proved himself an accomplished player ; Mr. Xenakis, a member of the National Gymnastic Association, likewise showed great skill and agility. Mr. Hoffmann, Mr. Jensen, a Dane, and Mr. Elliot tried in vain to beat them in this sport, however Mr. Andriakopoulos was declared winner of the first prize, Mr. Xenakis that of the second. The National Colours hoisted on the flagstaff were greeted with a storm of applause.

Additional Note: It became so cold on April 9 that they had to postpone the rope climb and the individual parallel bars until the next day.

These gymnastic exercises having taken up a considerable part of the afternoon, the hour was found far too much advanced to allow of any other contest taking place this day ; the 2 other contests marked on the programme had therefore to be postponed for the next morning. Besides the weather had become very cold. The Royal Family therefore accompanied by their august guests, the young King of Servia and H. I. H. the Archduchess Marie Theresa of Austria with her two daughters, left the Stadion and the people soon followed their example.


Official Report

Note: Carl Schuhmann won the wrestling competition, as well.

Separately, on a sad note, brothers Alfred and Gustav Flatow were killed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II.


Awards

Originally, there weren’t awards for third place — just first and second:

On a small table were placed the olive branches, to remind one of the ancient Altis, some laurel branches and the different diplomas, written on blue or white paper and folded up in long rolls. The medals, struck in silver for the first, and in bronze for the second prizes, were real masterpieces of workmanship; the model being engraved by the celebrated artist Chaplain. On the table lay also the presents for the winners, amongst them were a rich silver cup, given by Mr. Breal and an antique vase presented by Mr. Lambros, both destined for the winner in the Marathon Race.

Official Report

Swiss Gymnast Zutter reported this:

The Société des Amis Gymnastes de Neuchâtel, which had a representative at the Athens Olympic Games festival, in the person of Mr. Louis Zutter, receives the following communication:

“Louis Zutter obtained, in the pommel horse competitions, the 1st crown, in the vaulting horse, the 2nd crown, on parallel bars the 2nd crown. He also received a great diploma and a magnificent medal, and was invited to the dinner offered to the victors by the King of Greece. This brilliant result, which does honor to the Amis Gymnastes, earned Mr. Zutter, from the Swiss in Athens, a gift consisting of a crown and a watch.

Neuchâtelois en Grèce. La Société des Amis Gymnastes de Neuchâtel, qui avait un représentant à la fête des Jeux olympiques d’Athènes, en la personne de M. Louis Zutter, reçoit la communication suivante :

« Louis Zutter a obtenu, aux concours du cheval arçons, la 1re couronne, au cheval saut, la 2 m° couronne, aux barres parallèles la 2 m° couronne. Il a en outre reçu un grand diplôme et une magnifique médaille, et a été invité au dîner offert aux vainqueurs par le roi de Grèce.» Ce brillant résultat, qui fait honneur aux Amis Gymnastes, a valu à M. Zutter, delà part des Suisses d’Athènes, un cadeau consistant en une couronne et unè montre.

La Suisse Libérale, Volume 33, Number 96, 23 April 1896

Retroactively, the IOC added third-place finishes. On its website, the IOC lists third-place finishes for the following apparatus:

  • Team Parallel Bars: Greece (Ethnikos Gymnastikos Syllogos) – 3rd
  • Vault: Hermann Weingärtner, GER – 3rd
  • Rings: Petros Persakis, GRE – 3rd
  • Rope Climb: Fritz Hofmann, GER – 3rd

On the Judging

According to Dr. Hueppe, the judges weren’t knowledgeable:

In Athens only competitions on individual apparatus were required, i.e. a purely athletic fight. That was actually very unfavorable for our gymnasts, since it seemed possible that somebody could achieve more with a single piece of equipment with very poor all-around training. The regulations for the individual apparatus about changing strength and dexterity were often completely ignored by the judges, and the judges were generally so ignorant about apparatus gymnastics that Prince Georg only decided a few times by means of a powerful verdict.

[…]

But it is also extremely difficult to objectively evaluate apparatus exercises. We have gotten rid of this matter fairly well after long practice, and one could probably reasonably expect that our better knowledge will be taken into account in this, too, especially where there was so little objective understanding as in Athens. 

In Athen waren nur Kämpfe an einzelnen Geräthen vorgeschrieben, also ein rein athletischer Kampf. Das war eigentlich für unsere Turner sehr ungünstig, da es ja immerhin möglich erschien, dass irgendJemand bei sehr viel mangelhafter allseitiger Durchbildung doch an einem einzigen Geräthe mehr leisten konnte. Die Bestimmungen für die einzelnen Geräthe über Wechsel von Kraftund Geschicklichkeitsübungeil wurd en von den Preisrichtern vielfach ganz ignorirt, und es war überhaupt bei den Preisrichtern eine solche Fülle von Unkenntniss über Geräthturnen vorhanden, dass Prinz Georg einige Male nur durc h Macht-spruch entschied.

Es ist aber auch ungemein schwer, Geräthübungen objectiv zu werthen. Wir haben durch lange Uebung diese Sache leid­lich los, und man könnte wohl billig erwarten, dass man auch darin unserer besseren Kenntniss besonders dort ausgiebig Rechnung trägt, wo so wenig sachliches Verständniss vorhanden war wie in Athen.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

Dr. Hueppe thought that there was one competent judge:

If the German gymnastics association had officially participated, it would certainly have been different. I was only pleased that Professor Wheeler, because of his considerable athletic ability and knowledge, was always on my side, and that Prince Georg, at least in the majority of cases, accepted my judgment as the well-founded one. 

Bei officieller Betheiligung der deutschen Turnerschaft wäre das sicher anders gewesen. Es war mir nur erfreulich, dass Professor Wheeler aus seinem bedeutenden athletischen Können und Wissen heraus stets auf meiner Seite war und Prinz Georg wenigstens in der Mehrzahl der Fälle mein Urtheil als das begründete annahm.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

Without compulsory exercises, it was difficult to judge.

These difficulties in the assessment were particularly heightened because the Greek gymnasts had enforced it at the Committee that no compulsory exercises were prescribed for everyone, but that everyone only performed freestyle exercises of their own choice, which were often difficult to compare. 

Diese Schwierigkeisen in der Beurtheilung wurden aller­dings ganz besonders erhöht, weil die griechischen Turner es beim Comité durchgesetzt hatten, dass keine Pflichtübungen für Alle vorgeschrieben wurden, sondern dass Jeder nur Kürübungen nach eigener Wahl vorführte, die oft schwer zu ver­gleichen waren.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

The audience only appreciated big acrobatic tricks.

The wonderful position of the Germans on all apparatus was far superior to that of all others, while the difficulty of the exercises was achieved by individuals of the others. For these subtleties, however, the audience mostly had no understanding at all, and the stupidest tricks were often more appealing.

Die wunderbare Haltung der Deut­schen an allen Geräthen war der aller Anderen weit überlegen, während die Schwierigkeit der Uebungen von Einzelnen der Anderen erreicht wurde. Für diese Feinheiten hatten die Zuschauer aber meist gar kein Verständniss, und die dümmsten Trics sprachen oft mehr an.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

The love of “long lines” has existed for over a century:

The English and Americans were without exception over six feet, partly like Elliot, Burke, and Garret, over six feet, and corresponded much more closely to the conceptions of the Germanic race. Artistically this type makes a much better impression on all impartial parties, and that is supposed to be a goal of the art of gymnastics.

Die Engländer und Amerikaner waren ausnahmslos über 1.70 Meter, zum Theile wie Elliot, Burke, Garret, über 1.80 Meter und entsprachen den Auffassungen der germanischen Race sehr viel mehr. Künstle­risch macht dieser Typus auf alle Unbefangenen einen viel besseren Eindruck, und das soll ja auch ein Ziel der Turnkunst sein.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, December 20, 1896

On the subject of lines, the following was written in a British newspaper:

In our athletics we have one disadvantage as compared with the Greeks. We have not their climate: our gymnasts are necessarily hampered by clothing. We have reduced this clothing to a minimum it is true, but beyond the inconvenience caused by even that minimum in some of our exercises there is the loss of the graceful outlines of the perfectly formed human form.

Bedfordshire Times and Independent April 4, 1896

The Naysayers

Gymnastics has fought a long uphill battle. In 1896, several sports commentators were skeptical about the legitimacy of the sport.

For example, one writer wondered why there were awards for both pommel horse and vault.

It may be replied that, if any event is once admitted into the programme of the games, it should be treated as on an equality with all other events. We do not agree with this view. The climax was perhaps reached in connection with the vaulting horse. There were two olive branches, medals, and diplomas granted for this exercise, one for leaping the horse, the other for maneuvering upon a horse with pommels. The exercises performed in the first of these divisions seemed to the athletic and ungymnastic eye to be puerile, and those in the second division little less son. One would at least have expected to see some fine running vaults from a springboard, as in the English gymnasiums. Yet the winners received the same olive branch as the winner of the 100 meters; even the seconds in these absurd gyrations gained the same laurel branch as the second in the Hurdles. They were proclaimed Olympian victors, they returned to their native Germany and Switzerland with a halo of glory, while the second in the 1,500 meters, for instance, a fine runner though quite untrained, had to cross the Atlantic bearing with him the consciousness of merit alone. Of course there can be no graduation of prices for single events; a winner is a winner, however unimportant be the feat which he has accomplished. But we would suggestion that at the next meeting several of these gymnastic and other events should be combined, and a prize awarded for an aggregate of marks. An Olympic wreath is far too precious a thing to be squandered on good form on hoping over a horse or swarming up a rope.

G. S. Robertson “The Olympic Games by a Competitor and Prize Winner,” Fortnightly Review, June 1, 1896

Another critic argued that only measured and timed sporting events were legitimate.

But the gymnastic exercises did not fill the Stadion as the running matches had done, and the individual contest in vaulting the wooden horse, with twenty contestants, and the horizontal bar contest, with about the same number, nearly emptied it. The victories of this day depended on the judgment of a committee, and however fair the award might be, it was, after all, a matter of opinion, and the spectators seeing that the award resulted sometimes from discussion and compromise, kept their own opinion, which was sometimes at variance with what found expression at the masthead.

The real athletic contest is that which is decided by measurements and time-keeping beyond the possibility of dispute, affording results which the spectators can see for themselves. Such is pre-eminently the run.

Rufus Richardson, “The New Olympian Games,” Scribner’s Magazine, September 1896

Note: Gymnasts would compete in several track and field events in future Olympics.


Appendix A: The French Debate about Attending the Olympics

The Former President of the Union of Gymnastics Societies of France became the treasurer of the IOC and encouraged the French Union to attend the Olympics. Here’s a letter he wrote, which was printed in Le Gymanste on May 4, 1895:

Paris, April 20, 1895

Mr. President of the Union of Gymnastics Societies of France, Perigueux

Mr. President,

The International Congress, which was held in Paris last year, decided:

1st To restore, by modernizing them, the Olympic Games, one of the noblest institutions of ancient Greece;

2nd To restore them, in 1896, in the country which was once their cradle, in this city of Athens, which owed its greatness to the virility of its children, and which ceased to dominate the ancient world on the day when the Stadium was deserted by Hellenic youth.

The announcement of this double decision, which came from France, has aroused an enthusiasm throughout Greece which, far from weakening, seems to be growing as we approach the time when men from all parts of the world will meet at the feet of the Acropolis in the Stadium open again to the competitions of the youth. What a wonderful spectacle and what unforgettable memories it will leave in our hearts.

Charged by Mr. Strehly, by the Committee, to ensure the participation of French gymnastics at the Athens festivals, I address myself first of all to you, Mr. President, to ask you to support the request that I address, through you, to the Societies of the Union, to designate from among their gymnasts those who seem most worthy to represent our country at the Olympic Games. It is important, as you will easily understand, that the flag of France appear at this great international celebration, proudly carried by the best of its children.

I am aware that many difficulties, arising mainly from questions of time and money, may prevent our young people from going to Athens, but I would point out to you that this event will take place at the beginning of April, at the time Easter holidays, that is, at a time when it is quite easy to get a few days of freedom. As for the expenses, although I cannot tell you anything positive, I do not believe that I go too far in telling you that the Committee, which this big question worried, has the great hope of settling it in a way favorable to the pecuniary interests of those who will respond to its call.

Do you not think, Mr. President, that it would be good to refer to the next Congress the question of the Union’s participation in the Athens festivals and, more generally, in all those organized by friendly countries? If you are of this opinion, I believe that it would be useful to bring this proposal to the knowledge of the Societies as of now by the publication of my letter in Le Gymnaste, so as to provoke a movement of opinion which, I would like to say, may be translated, in Périgueux, by a favorable vote.

One more word, the President of the Republic has deigned to accept the honorary presidency of the French Committee, in order to show that France is today more than ever resolved to encourage all the exercises that make its children stronger, more courageous, and hence more invincible.

Please accept, Mr. President, the assurance of my respectful comradeship.

On behalf of the Committee: The Treasurer,

A. Callot

Former President of the Union of Gymnastics Societies of France

Le Gymnaste, May 4, 1895

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Then, in the September 21, 1895 issue of Le Gymnaste, these letters appeared from the President of the Belgian Gymnastics Federation and The Union of the Gymnastics Societies of France.

The president of the Belgian Gymnastics Federation sends us the following letter, to which we draw the attention of all the comrades, and in particular the Parisian comrades, to whom we have underlined certain significant passage in this letter:

“To the Presidents and members of the Standing Committee of the Union de Sociétés de Gymnastique de France.

“Gentlemen and dear colleagues,

“Last year, we received from the Olympic Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. de Coubertin, a call for our participation in their endeavor.

“It was in the midst of the organization of our XXII Federal holiday (Antwerp, June 1895) and we did not first pay due attention to it — Mr. E. Callot, one of our former presidents and the only one whose name was not unknown to us, insisted, and we were led, after consulting our colleagues from different European federations, including several from the Union — to make a declaration of principle and to decline the invitation.

“In recent months, the Olympic Games Committee has been back in charge and an invitation has been extended to us from Athens to participate at the first planned celebration in 1896.

“The statement of concepts in gymnastics is the same as last year, and we feel absolutely insufficient for our time.

“In addition, the plan to organize a similar Olympic festival in 1900 in Paris seems likely to jeopardize our participation in your federal festival, because our gymnasts can only attend one such an event.

“We have come to ask you for your opinion, as we have asked other European gymnastics federations.

“Do you believe that the organizers of the Olympic Games are able to organize events in line with our modern aspirations and with our views on the practice of physical exercises and the development of the human body?

“Do you think it is incumbent on us to follow this institution and adhere to the events it plans?

“You will oblige us a lot by sending us your good intel and advice as soon as possible.”

“September 6, 1895

“Mr. Cuperus “

Here is the response to this letter by Mr. H. Sécrestat, President of the Union:

“To Monsieur Cupérus, president of the Belgian Gymnastics Federation, in Antwerp.

“Périgueux, September 10, 1895

“Dear colleague,

“At its last congress, the Union des Sociétés de Gymnastique de France did not consider it appropriate to comment on the invitation from the Olympic Games Committee, which it had received at the same time as the Belgian federation. This question will be asked again at the November Congress, and I will have to draw inspiration from the decision that will be taken in the response that I received from your honor on the sixth of this month.

“My personal opinion, shared by most of the members of the standing committee, is that the preoccupations of our federal festival, which will take place next year in Algiers, must take precedence in such matters, and that it would therefore be difficult for our gymnasts to take part in the event organized in Athens.

“With my warmest regards, receive, my dear colleague, the assurance of my best regards.

H. Sécrestat

Le Gymnaste, September 21, 1895

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

To which the former president of the Union had to angrily respond:

Here is the response from Mr. Callot, former President of the Union, the inclusion of which was decided by the office of the Standing Committee. (Session of September 23):

Paris, September 23, 1895

To Mr. Sécrestat, President of the Union of Gymnastics Societies of France. Perigueux.

Mr. and Dear President,

I have just read in Le Gymnaste the letters exchanged between M. Cupérus and you concerning the participation of gymnastic societies in the Athens festivals.

The honorable president of the Belgian Federation having mentioned me, I ask your permission to speak, simply to tell you how much I regret to see growing the disagreement that exists between my excellent friend, Mr. Cupérus, and me, regarding the reestablishment of the “Olympics.” I took part, I admit, I, a former president of the Union, in this restoration, without imagining for a moment that it could harm the cause of gymnastics, to which I intend to remain faithful throughout my life. I saw it only as a new opportunity for young people to exercise their muscles, to the great benefit of their physical and moral health and to practice this or that exercise, according to their tastes, their aspirations, their temperament.

“Not all kids like gymnastics, that’s unfortunate; but should they be condemned, for this reason, to immobility? If, over the horizontal bar, they prefer rowing; if they prefer to run or pedal than to practice the trapeze, if the fencing foil has more attractions for them than the club, we can deplore it, but would we not go against the goal pursued since 1870, namely the development of the race, if we prohibited young people from exercising as they like, on the pretext that they differ from those used in our gymnasiums?

[Note: 1870 is often considered to be the start of the Third French Republic. The Third Republic invested heavily in gymnastics and physical education in France. Interestingly enough, before his fall in 1870, Emperor Napoleon III helped lay some of the groundwork. In February of 1869, he enacted a decree that created a diploma for teaching gymnastics (CAEG).]

“The restorers of the ‘Olympic Games,’ very eclectic people, some by nature, others by necessity, were moved by this one thought, that it was necessary to give free rein to the aspirations of today’s youth, by allowing them to practice all the exercises which tend to the development of his physical strength. Our friend Cupérus does not share their feelings on this point; surely he approves of the goal they pursue, but he rejects the means. He even goes so far as to criticize “the statement of concepts in gymnastics” which “seems to him absolutely insufficient for our time.” However, the part of the program, relating only to the exercises he admits, was drawn up by Mr. Strehly, the ordinary organizer of the interschool gymnastics competitions, which are held annually under the high patronage of the University. His competence was a guarantee which seemed sufficient to us. But our comrade does not seem to believe that we can organize a gymnastics festival in Athens and, on the other hand, he seems to think that the European Federations should not jump on the the new institution’s bandwagon, nor attend its events.

Well, let me take a completely different view than his. Certainly I cannot pretend in advance that everything will turn out in Athens as well as in Antwerp or in Paris, where we know better than anywhere else how to organize a federal festival, but I am sure we will get as close as possible to perfection, imitating us.

As for the wagon, may my friend Cupérus not be angry with me for speaking frankly to him: the word is hard, hard for the initiators of the work, hard also for his bosses, among whom is the king of the Belgians. And I add: Assuming that his campaign against the “Olympic Games” is successful and that gymnastics is not represented at the Athens festivals, what advantage will this noble and beautiful institution gain from it? We will know that it abstained, deliberately so as not to follow behind a Committee chaired by the “Prime Royal” of Greece, and then no sarcasm or mockery will be spared, and the public opinion of the whole world will be against it, at a time when our dear cause needs so much to increase the number of its supporters.

I deplore this result that I see, and I will do everything in my power to avert it. I love gymnastics too much not to desire, from the bottom of my heart, to see the banners of our federations floating at the feet of the Acropolis in the restored stadium.

I beg you to give this letter the hospitality of Le Gymnaste.

I have the honor, Mr. and dear President, to express to you the assurance of my feelings of respectful comradeship.

A. Callot

Former President of the Union

If we had to discuss with our kind correspondent, we would respectfully point out to him that the Committee of the “Olympic Games,” of which he is the eloquent apostle, did not invent anything by bringing swimming, cycling, or fencing to its programs. He knows as well as our people that apart from gymnastics proper, our societies are free to vary their sports exercises. What then is the use of scattering our forces and providing valuable assistance elsewhere, which the Union sorely needs.

Before seeking to restore, even by modernizing them, the games which once made the glory of Athens, before thinking of reviving the stadium deserted by the Hellenic youth, we must be concerned about our federal celebration, whose prestige is particularly dear to our hearts.

By pointing out to comrade Callot that the festivals he recommends take place next year, around the same time as the gymnastic event announced in Algiers, he will understand what we mean and there is reason to hope that he won’t insist.

Le Gymnaste, October 5, 1895

Appendix B: German Gymnasts Were Not Supposed to Attend the Olympics

Before the Olympic Games, the German gymnasts had participated in the Italian Federal Gymnastics Festival, which the German Gymnastics Federation [Deutsche Turnerschaft] reluctantly supported.

After [VIII German Gymnastics Festival in 1894], Flatow was named head gymnast and, in early 1895, applied to participate in the 3rd Italian Federal Gymnastics Festival in September of that year. This bold move was actually against the principles of the DT [Deutsche Turnerschaft], but it was well received, especially as the Prussian government showed interest and support. As a result, the leadership of the DT could not help but come up with a grant of 750 marks, enough for a team of nine to be sent to Rome from Berlin. 

Their journey was worthwhile. The team placed first and won other special prizes for their efforts. One of the outstanding performers was Weingaertner, who received 97.5 out of a possible 100 points in the all-around (gara individuale artistica) and was awarded the honours of the city of Rome. Flatow was second, just a half point behind. Schuhmann finished sixth. In addition, he earned four prizes in the “special gymnastics” (gara speciale): in stone tossing, high jump and weightlifting. He also won in wrestling. 

Volker Kluge, “‘Schuhmannaki’ versus ‘Hercules'”

While the German Gymnastics Federation (DT) ended up supporting the journey to Rome, it did not support the trip to Athens for the Olympics.

It was two Berliners who made it possible for the gymnasts to take part in the Games of the First Olympiad a year later. One was the courageous and far-sighted Berlin chemist Dr. Willibald Gebhardt, the other was Fritz Hofmann, a merchant. 

Gebhardt was a cosmopolitan who founded a German committee to promote participation in the Athens Games on 13th December 1895. This was a move fiercely opposed by conservative and nationalist circles, especially the leadership of DT. 

Despite this opposition, the committee enjoyed the goodwill of the Kaiser, whose sister was married to Crown Prince Constantine of Greece. In an audience with German Chancellor Prince Chlodwig zu HohenloheSchillingsfürst, Gebhardt learnt that Wilhelm II was following developments with interest. The prince himself was also keen on participation, especially since his eldest son, Crown Prince Philipp Ernst, had assumed presidency of the participation committee.

Gebhardt’s congenial partner was Fritz Hofmann, who came from Köpenick, then a separate town outside Berlin. He was the head gymnast of the Turngemeinde in Berlin (TiB). He stood 175 cm tall, which meant he was not suited to gymnastics proper. His strength was athletics, especially sprinting, jumping and rope climbing.

Hofmann was Schuhmann’s first point of contact, because he “knew all the gymnasts in Berlin and Brandenburg and – read newspapers”, he later explained. In fact, Hofmann was assembling the best gymnasts in the region and he knew how to get them excited about the Olympic adventure. 

The team for Athens slowly took shape. It included athletes, cyclists, rowers and football players in addition to gymnasts. As it did so, the headwinds intensified. Starting with a rejection of the decisions of the Olympic Founding Congress, it evolved into a furious hatred of the French, directed especially against Pierre de Coubertin.

It had been reported in the Gil Blas newspaper that Coubertin had allegedly stated that it was “peut-être à dessein” (“perhaps on purpose”) that no official German representative had been invited to Paris in 1894. 

Coubertin immediately denied this. He sent a letter to the chief editor of the National-Zeitung, which had repeatedly stoked the fires of the “Gil Blas affair.” Gebhardt, too, threw himself in the dispute with a polemic published at the end of February 1896.

For the leadership of the DT, the alleged statement by Coubertin offered a convenient pretext to refuse participation. It was justified by the behaviour of the main leadership, “which makes it incompatible with German honour to participate in the Games in Athens”. As an alternative, they proposed a German National Olympia, scheduled for 1900 in Leipzig, the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1813.

National or international? The Berlin gymnasts did not find it hard to decide, especially after hearing from their Saxon colleagues how enthusiastically they had been received in Greece during their “tour of the seas” in July 1892. When press reports in March 1896 announced that “Berlin’s top gymnasts” would be a part of the Olympic team, Goetz initially disputed this. Instead, he claimed, it was an unknown squad that Gebhardt would have put together “for money and good words”. The DT refused to have anything to do with the enterprise.

But when he read the names of their gymnasts and what they had won in the next issue of the journal, Goetz contradicted himself. From then on, he switched sides. He started insulting the rebels and implying that their success in Rome had probably gone to their heads. They were no longer doing gymnastics for honour, “but as business and for fun”. 

Long after the gymnasts arrived in Athens, Goetz remained agitated. “They are hired hands and are providing their gymnastic performances for money. They are degrading themselves as professional athletes and acrobats”, he claimed, eventually even disclaiming that they were German. Some of the press took the same view. The Rheinisch-Westfälische Zeitung which was an extremist journal insisted: 

Any German club or any German that puts his country to shame by promoting or attending these Games deserves to be shunned by his circle and by his people.

The gymnasts were not deterred by such threats. They may even have been unaware of them. It was Gebhardt who faced with the brunt of this assault, since he was the public face of the group. The participation committee had chosen him “by acclamation” as the “provisional representative” of Germany on the IOC.

Subcommittees, meanwhile, took care of assembling the team. Carl Stangen’s travel agency was put in charge of the travel formalities. The departure date for the first group, which included the gymnasts, was set for 26th March 1896. A gymnastics demonstration in Vienna was initially scheduled for two days later, but this was cancelled by the German-Austrian Gymnastic Federation as a result of pressure from DT leadership.

There was still the question of finance. The tickets for participants were 231 marks per person. This was a discount but it was still beyond the means of most of the young athletes who were either students, labourers or apprentices. To solve the problem, a special committee was formed. This organised a sports festival which was held on 24th March 1896. This had a raffle and tableaux vivants based on Homer’s poetry at the Kroll Festival Hall opposite the newly built Reichstag building.

The tickets for spectators were relatively expensive (six marks for a seat, three marks standing), but the event was a success, not least because the Prussian Crown Prince had taken over the patronage and the imperial family bought many tickets, which encouraged other nobles and celebrities to follow their example. The shortfall was made up in the form a loan to the team by Reinhold Schulz, now running successful swimming baths in the capital.

Volker Kluge, “‘Schuhmannaki’ versus ‘Hercules'”

When the team returned home, the gymnasts were initially banned from national competitions.

There were, however, no congratulations from Schuhmann’s homeland. The gymnasts who had represented Germany so splendidly found themselves banned from national competitions because they had participated at Athens contrary to the decisions of the DT board. It was only two years later that they were pardoned at their clubs’ request; this meant that Schuhmann was free to participate again at the IX German Gymnastics Festival in Hamburg. In the all-around, he finished second behind Flatow. Then, in December 1898, Schuhmann was called to London, where he worked as an instructor for the German Gymnastic Society as the successor to Rudolf Oberholzer.

Volker Kluge, “‘Schuhmannaki’ versus ‘Hercules'”

As noted above, the German gymnasts were supposed to do an exhibition in Vienna, but they weren’t allowed to. Here are newspaper accounts from that time.

Arrived in Vienna in the evening on their trip to Athens for the Olympic Games, [the athletes] should have held an exhibition gymnastics on Monday evening in the locale of the German-Austrian gymnastics club. This gymnastics show did not take place, however, because – listen and be amazed – “the German gymnasts were not officially asked to do the same by the club management, but only accepted the private invitation of a member of the German-Austrian gymnastics club!” The decisive factor for this attitude of the club management – this is how it is explained – “was likely to have been the fact that the Reich German gymnastics association had decided to refrain from general participation in the Olympic Games and that the ten German gymnasts are not to be considered as official delegates of the German gymnastics association.” 

Abends auf der Reise nach Athen zu den Olympischen Spielen in Wien eingetroffen sind, hätten Montag Abends im Locale des Deutsch-österreichischen Turnvereines ein Schauturnen veranstalten sollen. Dieses Schauturnen hat jedoch nicht stattgefunden, da —man höre und staune— »die deutschen Turner zu demselben von der Vereinsleitung nicht officiell aufgefordert worden waren, sondern nur der privaten Einladung eines Mitgliedes des Deutsch-öster­ reichischen Turnvereines Folge geleistet hatten«! Be­stimmend für diese Haltung der Vereinsleitung— so wird dies erklärt— »dürfte der Umstand gewesen sein, dass die reichsdeutsche Turnerschaft beschlossen hatte, von einer allgemeinen Betbeiligung au den Olympischen Spielen ab­zusehen, und dass die zehn deutschen Turner als officielle Delegirte der deutschen Turnerschaft nicht zu betrachten sind.«

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, April 5, 1896

Gebhardt was a chemist who founded a German committee to promote participation in the Athens Games on December 13, 1895. He also wrote an article for the Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, defending the German gymnasts who decided to compete in Athens.

I would like to ask a highly praiseworthy editor to publish the following in your esteemed newspaper. The ten Berlin gymnasts — who, under my leadership, are going to the Olympic Games in Athens and who were ceremoniously received here in Vienna the evening before yesterday by the Greek Colony and the Austrian Committee for the Olympic Games and who were splendidly entertained yesterday — have not been won over by me “for money and kind words,” as Dr. Götz, chairman of the German gymnastics association, claims; I didn’t even know the gentlemen personally, with the exception of one, and all of them volunteered. The same reject the above accusation with indignation. They all go to Greece out of love for the cause and with the intention of representing German gymnastics at the Olympic Games and only accept the same benefits from the German committee as those offered by the German gymnastics community itself for such occasions.

The German gymnastics community has refused official participation, as a result of which the gentlemen go, as they are fully entitled to do, as “German gymnasts.”

When the committee of the German gymnastics club declares that the squad going to Athens consists of unknown people, it shoots far over the target in its bitterness. All ten gentlemen are known to be excellent gymnasts; Among them are the first (Herr H. Weingärtner), second (A. Flatow), fifth (Carl Schuhman) and ninth (K. Neukirch) winners of the Italian National Gymnastics Festival in Rome in 1895, so “The Unknown People” are partly the same gymnasts who have been elected by the German gymnastics body to officially represent them. In addition, their efficiency is proven by the fact that seven of them were awarded prizes in Breslau in 1894 [at the VIII German Gymnastics Festival].

In view of this fact, which is well known in gymnastics circles, it is only to be deeply regretted that the chairman of the German gymnastics association tries to play the matter over onto the personal sphere. When the German gymnasts officially went to Rome, national sympathy for Italy was decisive for them; If we go to Athens now, in addition to the national sympathy for the brave Greek people, the fact that the maintenance of physical exercise all over the world, and not least that of modern German gymnastics, has its source in classical Hellenic gymnastics, is of importance to us.

The fact that the old accusations, whose baselessness has long been sufficiently proven, are repeatedly brought out by unset opponents, only shows the weakness of the reasons with which one tries to fight us. Sincerely,

Dr. W. Gebhardt.

Eine hochwohllöbliche Redaction bitte ich, Folgendes in Ihrem geschätzten Blatte veröffentlichen zu wollen. Die zehn Berliner Turner, welche unter meiner Führung nach Athen zu den Olympischen Spielen gehen und hier in Wien vorgestern Abends feierlich von der griechischen Colonie und dem österreichischen Comite für die Olym­pischen Spiele empfangen und gestern glänzend bewirthet wurden, sind von mir nicht »für Geld und gute Worte«, wie Dr. Götz, Vorsitzender der deutschen Turnerschaft, behauptet, gewonnen worden; die Herren waren mir, mit Ausnahme eines einzigen, persönlich nicht einmal be­kannt und haben sich sämmtlich freiwillig gemeldet. Die­ selben weisen den obigen Vorwurf mit Entrüstung zurück. Sie gehen alle aus Liebe zur Sache und mit der Absicht, das deutsche Turnen auf den Olympischen Spielen zu ver­treten, nach Griechenland und nehmen von dem deutschen Comite nur dieselben Vergünstigungen an, wie solche von der deutschen Turnerschaft selbst für solche Gelegenheiten bisher geboten worden sind.

Die deutsche Turnerschaft hat eine officielle Be­theiligung abgelehnt, in Folge dessen gehen die Herren, wozu sie vollkommen berechtigt sind, als »deutsche Turner«.

Wenn der Ausschuss der deutschen Turnerschaft erklärt, dass die nach Athen gptilende Riege aus unbe­kannten Leuten besteht, so schiesst er in seiner Erbitte­rung weit über das Ziel. Sämmtliche zehn Herren sind als hervorragende Turner bekannt; es befinden sich unter ihnen der erste (Herr H. Weingärtner), zweite (A. Flatow), fünfte (Carl Schuhman) und neunte (K. Neukirch) Sieger des deutschen Bundesturnfestes in Rom vom Jahre 1895, »Die unbekannten Leute« sind also zum Theil dieselben Turner, welche von der deutschen Turnerschaft selbst zu ihrer officiellen Vertretung aasgewählt worden sind. Ausserdem wird die Tüchtigkeit derselben dadurch be­wiesen, dass sieben von ihnen in Breslau 1894 mit Preisen ausgezeichnet worden sind.

Es ist dieser in turnerischen Kreisen hinlänglich bekannten Thatsache gegenüber nur tief zu bedauern, dass der Vorsitzende der deutschen Turnerschaft die Sache auf das persönliche Gebiet herüber zu spielen versucht. Als die deutschen Turner officiell nach Rom gingen, war für dieselben die nationale Sympathie für Italien massgebend; wenn wir jetzt nach Athen gehen, so ist neben der nationalen Sympathie für das tapfere Griechenvolk der Umstand für uns von Bedeutung, dass die Pflege der Leibesübungen in der ganzen Welt und nicht zuletzt die der modernen deutschen Turnkunst ihren Urquell in der classischen hellenischen Gymnastik hat.

Dass immer wieder von unseten Gegnern die alten Vorwürfe, deren Haltlosigkeit längst zur Genüge bewiesen worden ist, hervorgeholt werden, zeigt nur die Schwäche der Gründe, mit denen man gegen uns auzukämpfen ver­sucht. Hochachtungsvoll

Dr. W. Gebhardt.

Allgemeine Sport-Zeitung, April 5, 1896

As for the temporary ban for German competitors who participated in the Olympics, this is what the Berlin Gymnastics Association wrote in its Festschrift for its 50-year anniversary:

In 1896 the first new Olympic Games, organized by an international committee, took place in Athens. A number of Berlin gymnasts, among them the best gymnasts in the Berlin gymnastics community, had taken part in the Olympic competitions under the leadership of Fritz Hofmann and achieved great success. Nevertheless, they were reprimanded because they had acted as German gymnasts, contrary to the decisions of the Committee of the German Gymnastics Association. The committee of the Berlin Gymnastics Shire (Gau) decided at that time to ask the district (Kreis) gymnastics association to express its disapproval. However, the latter expanded the application of the ban and decided to exclude them from all gymnastics competitions at the shire (Gau) gymnastics festivals and the gymnastics festivals of District IIIb in the future. The Berlin gymnastics community and the gymnastics community at large raised objections to this decision, with the result that the strict measures were later mitigated and gymnasts were allowed to participate in all gymnastics competitions again.

Im Jahre 1896 fanden die ersten neuerstandenen Olympischen Spiele, die von einem internationalen Komitee veranstaltet wurden in Athen Statt. Eine Reihe Berliner Turner, unter ihnen auch die besten Wettturner der Berliner Turnerschaft, hatten unter der Führung Fritz Hofmanns von der Turngemeinde an den olympischen Wettkämpfen teilgenommen und große Erfolge errungen. Trotzdem wurden sie, weil sie entgegen den Beschlüssen des Ausschusses der Deutschen Turnerschaft als deutsche Turner aufgetreten waren, gemaßregelt. Der Ausschuß der Berliner Turngaue beschloß damals, den Kreisturntag zu ersuchen, ihnen seine Mißbilligung auszusprechen. Dieser erweiterte jedoch den Antrag und beschloß, sie in Zukunft von allen Wetturnen auf den Gauturnfesten und den Turnfesten des Kreises IIIb auszuschließen. Gegen diesen Beschluß wurde seitens der Berliner Turnerschaft und der Turngemeinde Einspruch erhoben, mit dem Erfolge, daß Später die Scharfen Maßnahmen gemildert und den Turnen die Teilnahme an allen Wetturnen wieder gestattet wurde.

Festscrhift, Berliner Turnerschaft Korporation, 1863-1913

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