Dick Fosbury, October 9, 2021 at the Trento, Italy (Photo: Getty Images)
When Dick Fosbury, who died a few days ago at the age of 76, leaped in the final of the men’s high jump at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, it seemed unlikely that he was going to set the event alight. The lanky civil engineering student was considered an average jumper. His best effort using the then-popular Western roll technique, where an athlete flings himself over the bar face-down, was a mere 1.63 metres (5.4 feet), a height that was unimpressive even by the standards of the 1960s. He may have qualified for the Olympics, but did so by just a whisker at the trials. And yet, when he landed on the mat across the bar for the final time that day, he had transformed high jump forever.
Fosbury’s performance is considered one of the most influential moments in track and field history. He had devised a technique so unconventional that it was more a subject of mockery than awe. Unlike the then conventional scissors jump, where an athlete throws one leg and then the other over the bar in a scissor-like motion before landing on his feet, or the straddle and its variant, the Western roll, where he flings himself over the bar face-down, Fosbury, to everyone’s shock, did it backwards. He took off at an angle, leaped back first, bending himself into a ‘J’ shape over the bar, before landing on the mat on the back of his neck. Such an attempt, of course, would not have been possible, or safe, without the advent of deep foam matting.
When asked what the style was called, Fosbury came up with “Fosbury Flop”. He had taken the term from the headline of a newspaper article “Fosbury Flops Over the Bar”, where the reporter had written how its practitioner had resembled a fish flopping in a boat.
The Fosbury Flop today may be the universal way of jumping, but it looked weird and unworkable back then. Even though Fosbury earned both the gold medal and an Olympic record at the time with a best at 7 feet 4¼ inches, it had appeared so outlandish that very few thought it would catch on.
It was also ridiculed. One newspaper compared it to a corpse being pushed out of a window. Another said Fosbury “extended himself like a slightly apprehensive man lying back on a chaise lounge that’s too short for him.” Some also worried that it would lead to an entire generation of high jumpers being wiped out because by imitating Fosbury, they would end up with broken necks. All of this was unfounded. And within just a few years, most elite jumpers were beginning to adopt this new style.
Fosbury, more generally, came to be viewed as a symbol of innovativeness. Cited across sporting disciplines and discussed in business management programmes, his approach was discussed as the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that can transform human endeavours. He would say it might have looked weird, but had felt so natural that “like all good ideas, you just wonder why no one had thought of it before me.”
Fosbury developed this new style because he wasn’t particularly good otherwise. He had taken to high jump after failing to make it to his school’s football and basketball teams, only to find out, he claimed, that he was the worst jumper there.
He had hit a scientific truth unknowingly when he developed this new method. When a jumper uses the conventional style, he lifts his body almost all at once over the bar causing the centre of mass (or the moment when the weight of the entire body is at a particular point during motion) to remain high. In Fosbury’s new style, since the whole body is never over the bar at the same time, the centre of mass is lower.
His coaches however weren’t very encouraging. Some warned he would hurt himself. One called it a “shortcut to mediocrity.” But Fosbury stuck on.
He drifted away from the spotlight in later years. After failing to qualify for the 1972 Munich Olympics, he moved away from athletics and went on to start an engineering company.
Many have since gone on to break Fosbury’s record. But most of them have done it using his Fosbury Flop.