Gymnastics has been part of the contemporary Olympic Games since Athens 1896. Great Britain joined the competitions 12 years later - in London 1908. The 108 years that followed were marked by the incredible efforts of the pioneers and their followers of this great sport.
From a country where gymnastics was known as a ‘minor’ sport, Great Britain has grown into one of the top gymnastics nations in the world with historic performances in recent Games:
A hundred years after our single individual medal from the Olympic Games won by Walter Tysall in London 1908, Louis Smith won the bronze medal on pommels in Beijing 2008.
The British Men’s Team achieved Olympic bronze in Stockholm 1912 and again in London 2012 thanks to Kristian Thomas, Louis Smith, Dan Purvis, Sam Oldham and Max Whitlock - who also took the bronze medal on pommels.
At the same Games, Beth Tweddle completed her formidable career by winning the first ever individual medal for a British woman - bronze on uneven bars.
So far, Great Britain has taken part in the Olympic gymnastics events with full men’s and women’s teams six times: in Amsterdam 1928, London 1948, Helsinki 1952, Rome 1960, Los Angeles 1984 and London 2012.
Best all-around results
Men’s artistic, London 2012 - 7th place, Kristian Thomas
Women’s artistic, Beijing 2008 - 12th place, Becky Downie
Trampoline women, London 2012 - 9th place, Kat Driscoll
Trampoline men, Sydney 2000 - 6th place, Lee Brearley
Rhythmic, Athens 2004 - 21st place, Hannah McKibbin equal to Barcelona 1992, Debbie Southwick
Best team results
Men’s artistic - Bronze medal 1912 Stockholm and Bronze medal 2012 London
Women’s artistic - Bronze medal in 1928 Amsterdam
Full medal tally
Overall, the number of British medals to date is eight, consisting of two silver and six bronze medals, from five Olympic Games and breaks down as follows:
1928 Amsterdam - Bronze - Women’s team
1912 Stockholm - Bronze - Men’s team
1908 London - Silver - Walter Tysall - all-around
A journey through time
The first name written in British Gymnastics’ Olympic history page is Walter Tysall of Birmingham Athletic Institute. He won the first Olympic medal for the country in London 1908 taking all-around silver finishing the competition only five points behind the diminutive Italian Alberto Bragilia, renowned for his outstanding vaulting. The competition was held held outdoors at Shepherds Bush, and consisted of team drills involving between 20 and 40 gymnasts followed by individual events when the gymnasts competed on different apparatus.
The British men were also in the following Olympic Games - in Stockholm 1912 when the team of 23 gymnasts took bronze medal following Italy (gold) and Germany (silver).
Instruction to gymnasts in these early years is not that different to the present day, though styles have changed!. Here is an extract of a letter prior to the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp where the GBR Mass Men’s team took 5th place:
"DRESS: All members should now be in possession of their complete outfit with the exception of belts and straw hats which will be given out in Antwerp. "
Paris 1924 saw the Great Britain’s men’s team finish in 6th place, represented by eight men. The highest individual ranking was Stanley Leigh from Swansea YMCA (35th place)
In Amsterdam 1928, women were finally allowed to take part in the Olympic Games and the British women didn’t waste any time in joining the medal podium. They won the team bronze medal following Holland and Italy. Unfortunately, they missed their moment of glory on the rostrum as they couldn’t afford to stay an extra day in Amsterdam and had to return back home. The team performed on pommel horse, parallel bars and in a team drill. They were dressed in short tunics six inches above the knee and wore black woollen stockings.
The British participation at the Olympic Games includes numerous curiosities one of which is the "toss of a coin" (due to lack of funds) prior to Berlin 1936. That coin sent the ladies to Germany leaving the men at home.
Following the gap caused by the Second World War, the Games came back to London in 1948. The men competed in a mix of compulsory and voluntary exercises very similar to today’s competition format, whereas the women’s event looked quite different, including pommel horse and swinging rings. The British men finished 12th and the women were placed 9th.
Here are the gymnasts who have left their legacy in our Olympic gymnastics history:
Frank Turner (1948, 1952, 1956), Ken Buffin (1948, 1952, 1960), Terry Bartlett (1984, 1988, 1992);
George Wheedon (1948, 1952), Nik Stuart (1956, 1960), Tommy Wilson (1976, 1980); Keith Langley (1980, 1984), Barry Winch (1980, 1984), Andrew Morris (1984, 1988), Louis Smith (2008, 2012).
On the women’s side, up to Rio 2016, only two gymnasts have taken part in three Olympic Games:
Pat Hurst (1948, 1952, 1956) and Beth Tweddle (2004, 2008, 2012).
Twice Olympians were Gwynet Lingard (1952, 1960), Avril Lenox (1972, 1976), Susan Cheesbrough (1976, 1980), Annika Reeder (1996, 2000) Hannah Whelan (2008, 2012) and Imogen Cairns (2008, 2012).
Famous gymnastics Olympians
Over the years many British Gymnastics Olympians have enjoyed a career based on their knowledge, skills and experiences in gymnastics. Here are just a few of numerous examples:
Three- time Olympian Frank Turner frequently acted as stunt man for Burt Lancaster and Roger Moore. Twice Olympian George Weedon was a film stand-in and stunt man as was the iconic British Gymnastics figure Nik Stuart, while double Olympian Barry Winch and Jeff Davis (Olympian in Montreal 1976) have gained popularity with their gymnastics stunts.
Also very successful in art, show industry, film and television have also been Mary Prestidge (Mexico 1968) and Susan Cheesebrough (Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980).
Others have become stars of "Cirque du Soleil" including Triple Olympian Terry Bartlett (see above); Paul Bowler (Barcelona 1992); Lee MacDermott (1996), who is currently the Head Coach for Michael Jackson ONE and Mystere shows; Claire Wright (Trampoline, Beijing 2008) and many others.
The current British Gymnastics Head National coaches for men’s and for women’s artistic gymnastics- Eddie Van Hoof and Amanda Reddin (nee Harrison) both competed in the Olympic games in Los Angeles 1984, while their team mate in LA Andrew Morris is now the Chair of the British Gymnastics Men’s Technical Committee.
Many gymnasts have also gone in to TV commentary such as Monica Phelps (nee Rutherford), British Olympian in Tokyo 1964; Suzanne Dando (Moscow 1980), Hayley Price (Los Angeles 1984) Craig Heap (the only British man who competed in Sydney 2000 and achieved his personal best result) and, of course Beth Tweddle MBE.
BBC Sport Director Barbara Slater was also an Olympian - in Montreal 1976. Her coach was her father Bill Slater OBE, a very highly respected former football player of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, turned lecturer at Birmingham University and President of British Gymnastics in the 90’s.
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