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The Opening of the Midnight Sun Special at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on July 15 2015. Picture: Morgan Walker for Finland Today

Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent influx of various uniformed groups, nationalities, and languages on Helsinki – or rather, the highly visible and effective advertising campaign sprinkled throughout transport and the city, mentioning World Gymnaestrada?

Sitting on the metro, a large group of older Germans entered, clearly demarcated by national colours and boisterous German. Glancing at their lanyards, I quickly noticed that it stated gymnast.


The German group displaying impressive gymnastic feats. Picture: Morgan Walker for Finland Today

The entrants were certainly more than a stone’s throw from my first conception of a gymnast – athletic, graceful, and young. It’s easy to conflate the age/physique aspect of gymnastics with gymnaestrada, yet there are subtle differences, which I soon came to understand and appreciate. The World Gymnaestrada is organised every four years, and is authorised by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG). It is Finland’s first time hosting the event since its inception in 1953.

However, the atmosphere is non-competitive: there are no points awarded, no medals, and demonstrations span the entire range of gymnastics. The 15th World Gymnaestrada includes 21,000 participants from 53 countries and five continents, with a total of 200 hours of gymnastic experiences over the festival week. This is no small feat, given it is Helsinki’s largest international event based on number of participants.

Group performances are the key element of Gymnaestrada, which cater for all ages. Naturally, Finland’s participation is the highest (just shy of 4000 entrants), with other large representations coming from Switzerland (3,855), Germany (2,027), and Portugal (1059). The group performances come in all varieties, which provides an interesting twist on traditional conceptions of gymnastics.


The audience finding it hard to stay on their seats. Picture: Morgan Walker for Finland Today

For example, if the group is predominately young, they can incorporate complex physical techniques with impressive precision as a large unit with accompanying music. However, as age begins to ultimately limit the physicality of the gymnasts, it is compensated for with elements of drama, comedy, costumes, and endearing spirit. Irrespective of age, all participants were impressively athletic and the crowd equally encouraging. The jovial atmosphere, bold display of national emblems, chanting, impromptu performances, singing, and dancing amongst various national groups in the audience promoted a viscerally harmonious internationality.


The German team’s finale. Picture: Morgan Walker for Finland Today

In accordance with the huge attendance, large group performances are the crown jewel of the World Gymnaestrada. This was suitably demonstrated with the Midnight Sun Special in the Olympic stadium, which showcased a World Team for the first time in gymnaestrada history, comprising approximately 2,000 gymnasts from over 30 countries. The choreographers of this spectacle, Ms Hannele Ahlqvist & Ms Marja Kallioniemi, cited goals of combining nationalities and generations, encouraging good spirits and happy faces, and to provide a taste of large group performances.


An enthusiastic Gymnaestrada group utilising props in their performance. Picture: Morgan Walker for Finland Today

It’s hard to conceive, but the participants of this event practiced prior from DVD’s and schematics provided by the choreographers, either in groups, or if coming from a country with less gymnast tradition, even alone. The routine was further practiced and polished when all the participants arrived in Helsinki.


The military band opens the Midnight Sun Special. Picture: Morgan Walker for Finland Today

When each gymnast has a two-metre interval on the stadium ground, where they perform gymnastic movements individually, while navigating complex transitions in to shapes like a swam (displayed at the opening of the performance), this feat seems unfathomable.


The Midnight Sun World Team closes the evening. Picture: Morgan Walker for Finland Today

Certainly, the Midnight Sun World Team vibrantly displayed their skills, as Helsinki provided an atmospheric backdrop with the Olympic stadium and a picturesque sunset.

The 15th World Gymnaestrada runs from the 12th to the 18th of July, with a closing ceremony in the Olympic Stadium to conclude the event this Saturday at 15:00.