gymnastics and politics

Reviewed by Wendy Varney, PhD, School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication, University of Wollongong, Australia

JANUARY 22, 2007       archive

The connections between politics and gymnastics are complex, contradictory in parts, utterly intriguing and largely unexplained. Hans Bonde’s thoroughly researched book about Niels Bukh goes at least part of the way to solving the enigma of that relationship.

With scores of fascinating pictures and the bonus of a CD that includes film clips, this is more than a biography of Bukh: gymnast, pedagogue, Hitler disciple and Danish patriot. The book is also a valuable resource for historians of sport and those interested in prodding below the surely now discredited claims that sport stands apart from politics.

The fascinating character at the heart of this book lived from 1880 to 1950. His death was, ironically, just two years before the then-Soviet Union first took part in the Olympic Games and, in so doing, set the bar at a new height for gymnastics, then kept resetting it for at least the next three decades before Soviet gymnastic dominance crumbled, almost parallel to the crumbling of its Eastern European rule. Bukh had visited the Soviet Union and disliked what he saw. Sadly, he did not turn an equally critical eye towards Nazi Germany, which arguably used him as a pawn.

During his lifetime, but not restricted to that period, Bukh was among the most influential characters in his sport, having set up his famous Ollerup school and instigated new and popular styles of gymnastics. In line with his fame and adding further to it, he led gymnastics teams to multiple countries and five continents. Many of his ventures, including his school, were established on the premise that they allowed the best form of exercise and all the benefits that went with it for ordinary folk. Certainly, Bukh drew on an ample pool of farm lads for the basis of his student body, but it cannot be denied that elite sportspeople were being produced, one of just numerous contradictions pointed out in the book.

Other stark contradictions include the simultaneously liberating yet authoritarian nature of Bukh’s gymnastics, the latter no doubt underpinning its appeal to the Nazi regime. The most notable contradiction, however, remains Bukh’s substantial support for Hitler despite the gymnastic frontiersman’s status as one of the strongest icons of national identity that Denmark had. Exhibitions by his touring teams of gymnasts always prominently incorporated the Danish flag. Though more general and contemporary ramifications were not drawn out by the author, the fervently uncritical use of national symbols within sport warrants broader discussion, as it can entail sidestepping everything we believe democracy should embrace but are all too willing to jettison under a flag. The rise of ever more globalized sport and the national hype that this evokes suggest we need to revisit these issues and the sleights of hand that jingoism can conceal. This makes Bonde’s book a timely one.

Bukh is not the first nor last gymnast to have embraced gymnastics with a socio-political objective in mind or to have made use of gymnastics celebrityhood to have made a socio-political point. Historians of gymnastics know that Johann Jahn’s development of modern gymnastics was closely tied to his hopes for imbuing patriotism and militarism in young German men, while the Sokol Movement looked to gymnastics for a somewhat different set of social objectives. Later instructors in gymnastics often saw it as suitable for the social agenda rigidly set out for women, ironically facilitating the reaching of their potential, while simultaneously restraining the scope of that potential. Much later, the great gymnast Vera Caslavska put her gymnastic weight behind the Prague Spring and from her Olympic podium made a subtle but powerful protest against the Soviet invasion of her country in 1968. This reminds us that political involvement in gymnastics can cover a broad spectrum between authoritarianism and liberation.

Nevertheless, Bukh’s influence and the era in which he wielded that influence were uncommonly significant and combined to make him a particularly pertinent force in both the shaping of gymnastics and the use of gymnastics towards political ends. This was largely acknowledged at the time, with sporting, political and social organizations disagreeing about his national contribution. The Nazi regime made good use of Bukh’s support and co-operation, using him as apologist and facilitator of as much good will as he could muster on their behalf in his occupied country. Of course, this does not answer the question as to whether there was something in Bukh’s style of gymnastics that made it more compatible with the authoritarian and ideological tenets of Nazism than previous versions of gymnastics.

The case is perhaps a little stronger for Bukh’s sexuality having influenced his gymnastics, the other worthy subject of Bonde’s book. Reflecting on attitudes towards homosexuality in Denmark and other parts of Europe in Bukh’s day, it is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, to find that Bukh was simultaneously forthright about promoting a male aesthetic that seemed hardly to conceal his lust for young men, and yet secretive about his own homosexuality and sexual activity. The new gymnastics which Bukh developed for his male gymnasts broke considerable boundaries with the amount of touching, which was incorporated into the exercises and displays. Yet it seems to have been broadly accepted, Bonde feeling this may have been due to the strong image of masculinity which was also robustly displayed. These traditionally contrasting aspects were reflected also in the flexibility and stretching, which went hand in hand with moves of strength but which broke from the more traditional gymnastics.

The major flaw of this book is that its otherwise excellent scope as a resource has been devalued by the omission of an index. Also, a thorough proofread by someone with English as a first language would surely have picked up several grammatical errors in the translated version. It is nonetheless a worthy contribution to the history of gymnastics and to literature dealing with the politics of sport.

Hans Bonde. Gymnastics and Politics: Niels Bukh and Male Aesthetics. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. 376 pp. ISBN 87-7289-827-S. Hardback.

Copyright © 2007 by Wendy Varney.

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