Odds are the name Dick Fosbury or the term ‘Fosbury Flop’ wouldn’t ring a lot of bells. But if you’ve ever seen a high jumper in action, you’ve been witness to the legacy the man has left behind.
Fosbury, (born Richard Douglas Fosbury) revolutionised the sport when he developed the ‘Flop’ – the back-first technique which is the bread and better of a high jumper today.
The technique, however, was born not out desire of grandeur but pure necessity. In high school, Fosbury couldn’t succeed using the belly roll -- the then-popular technique – struggling to clear even 5 feet. The ‘scissors’ method proved only slightly better, but still not good enough for Fosbury to make a mark.
Partly due to persistence and partly because of a self-professed lack of talent for any other sport, Fosbury decided to shake things up. During a freshman meet, instead of jumping with his face towards the bar, the 6’4” Portland kid twisted his body, arched his back, and went over the bar backwards while landing on his neck and shoulders. And just like that, the Flop was born.
Fosbury touched new heights, but like any thing unconventional, his style met with criticism. The Medford Mail-Tribune ran a photo with the caption: Fosbury Flops Over Bar. One newspaper called Fosbury “a fish flopping in a boat” while other named him “world’s laziest high jumper”.
Coach Berny Wagner had his own reservations. Despite Fosbury’s improved performances, Wagner asked his pupil to stick to the belly roll, relegating the Flop to a distant Plan B. In response, Fosbury jumped 6ft10in to break the school record and won the NCAA championship.
Despite being USA’s final jumper to qualify for the 1968 Olympics, Fosbury had a lot of buzz going into Mexico City. And by the time the Games were done, the 21-year-old had set a new Olympic record of 2.24 meters (7.35 feet) and had changed the sport forever.
Well, not immediately. There were the safety concerns to contend with.
Back then, only top athletes had padded matteresses to jump onto, as high schools still only had sawdust, sand or wood chip surfaces. Fosbury himself jumped into a landing pit of wood chips and sawdust until his third year when his school became one of the first one to install a foam pit.
Payton Jordan, the US Olympic coach, said, “Kids imitate champions. If they try to imitate Fosbury he will wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers, because they will all have broken necks.”
That never happened. On the contrary, of the 40 competitors at the Munich Olympics four years later, 28 used the Fosbury Flop. Since then, floppers have held all world records and won every single medal.
Ironically, Fosbury failed to qualify for the Munich Games and retired from the sport in 1972, having graduated from Oregon State University with a civil engineering degree.
Fosbury was inducted in the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1981, and then to the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1992.
In 1977, he moved to Idaho to set up an engineering company and retired in 2011. The 69-year-old organises track camps and gives clinics to athletes and coaches around the world.
In November 2014, Fosbury ran as a Democrat for a seat in the Idaho House of Representatives against state Republican representative Steve Miller and lost by 126 votes. While he says he is done with Idaho politics, Fosbury harbours an ambition to run for president of the US Olympians and Paralympians Association.