The Battle over Amateur Gymastics

When gymnastics was added as an Olympic sport in 1896, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) began to hold national championships in the United States.  All athletes that wanted to qualify for the Olympic team had to compete in these championships.  By the 1960s some college coaches were unhappy with the AAU.  They felt that gymnastics was not a priority for this large organization.  American athletes were not doing very well internationally, and the coaches thought they could do better.  The coaches formed a new organization called the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF).  In 1963, Frank Bare was asked to become executive director of this organization.  He had been the 1952 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Pommel Horse Champion. 

This started a long battle between the AAU and USGF over gymnastics.  The AAU was also in a battle over track and field with the NCAA.  In 1966 there was a big power play between the organizations – and the YMCA and Bill Buffa were caught in the middle.

The AAU struggled to maintain control of gymnastics, even as many of the top athletes supported the USGF.  The AAU threatened athletes that they would not be able to go to international competitions if they participated in USGF meets.  In 1966 a group of college (NCAA) athletes went to a USGF meet.  The AAU declared them ineligible for the National Championships – and therefore the World Games.  The United States Senate stepped in, and the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing and reinstated the athletes.  The athletes worried that if they went to the AAU National Championships, the NCAA would declare them ineligible.  They were caught in the middle of this feud.

That same year Bill Buffa found out that the USGF was planning on holding their National Championships on the same weekend as the YMCA National Championships.  This created a lot of problems.  Even judges were hard to find that year.  Bill Buffa wrote to Frank Bare to see if they could work things out.  Frank Bare responded by saying if the YMCA had been a member of the USGF this would not have happened.  He also said that very few elite athletes were members of the YMCA.  For men this was true.  Most top male athletes were in college.  There were numerous elite women gymnasts training at YMCAs at this time.

Bill Buffa responded back saying that since the USGF meet was not sanctioned by the AAU it really did not matter.  He made it clear in his letter that he fully supported the AAU.

In 1968 the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) proposed that US Gymnastics be governed by a National Gymnastics Commission.  This commission was made up of five delegates from the USGF and five from the AAU.  This forced the two organizations to work together. 

1969 was the last year of the AAU holding National Championships.  By 1970, the FIG recognized the USGF as the official organization US Gymnastics, putting an end to the feud.

Today YMCA athletes compete in USAG (formerly USGF), AAU, and YMCA meets, and the YMCA is a member of the USAG.

A series of letters between Bill Buffa and Frank Bare are attached below.  These came from the YMCA archives.

Abie Grossfeld's Opinion on the Switch to USGF

"To have an organization, USGF, concerned only about gymnastics was certainly better than the AAU which governed several sports and had gymnastics on its “back burner.” Although the move was better for gymnastics, a primary motivational force for those (college) coaches that initially wanted to break off from the AAU, was to have control over selection of the Olympic Coach, rather than what was good for gymnastics, although that was built into the move.

A number of the ill practices of the AAU soon took hold after the USGF took control."

Indeed, some of the controversy surrounding the Olympic coaching decisions (and gymnast selection) has been written about by Abie's brother-in-law at that time - Bruce A. Davis.

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