American high jumper Dick Fosbury, who revolutionised high jump technique, passed away at 76 on Monday. Against convention, Fosbury turned his back to the bar and arched his body over it — a unique method he had developed a few years earlier — to win gold at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The Fosbury Flop is now the most used technique around the world.
How did he come up with the Flop?
At a high school meet in 1963, Fosbury, struggling to stay on the team, decided to ditch the straddle technique and go for the less popular scissor technique. The coach tried to talk him out of it, but Fosbury believed he needed to stick to what he was comfortable with, because of his plateauing performance at 1.62 metres, the starting height for the competition. He cleared it, but his butt brushed the bar. A voice in his head asked, ‘how do I raise my butt in the middle of a scissor jump?’ As he attempted at 1.70 metres, Fosbury leaned back. He scissored his left leg over the bar but instead of repeating a similar motion with his right leg, leaned back and his butt sailed over the bar. He set two personal bests.
For the first 72 years at the Olympic Games, athletes jumped forwards in the high jump 🏃
Then, at Mexico 1968, Dick Fosbury came along with his “Fosbury flop” and changed the sport forever 🙌pic.twitter.com/AZOwrV6scA
— AW (@AthleticsWeekly) March 13, 2023
It was the birth of what Fosbury called the ‘half-scissors half layback’, as documented in the book The Wizard of Foz: Dick Fosbury’s One-man High Jump Revolution. An evolved version would be known as the Fosbury Flop. The term was first used in 1963, five years before he won the Olympic gold.
What helped Fosbury?
In the 1960s, Don Gordon, a former athlete and armyman, filed a patent for ‘Port a Pit’, a foam and rubber cushion. Till then, the landing area for high jump was filled with wooden chips and sawdust. Fosbury would land on his back and his neck too bore the impact. His school, Medford High, was the first in all of Oregon to use foam. He loved the landing and soon started experimenting with his technique, though coaches tried to convince him not to, fearing injury. But soon Fosbury was breaking records, a photograph of his jump was on the wires, and he was giving interviews.
How good was Fosbury before the flop?
He was average and was not seen as a special talent till he started using his unique method. Jumping was an escape for him after his younger brother Greg was killed in a hit-and-run case. His parents separated shortly after. “I felt guilty because I tried to do something for my brother (he had taken him for a bike ride after a playful fight got out of hand) and it backfired in a big way. I had him ride behind me with the light, but should have ridden behind him. He took the full hit and I got the glancing blow. He died and I lived. How is that fair?” Fosbury is quoted as saying in the book.
His sister Gail said that jumping was an escape and passion for Fosbury.
Why did many think the Fosbury Flop would flop?
Simply because nobody had tried it before. Back in the day, there were two popular techniques and both were executed as jumpers faced the bar – the scissor and the straddle.
In the scissor technique, one leg is raised after another in a scissor-like motion, the body stays partially upright, and the jumper lands on the feet. In the straddle technique, the jumper takes off with the inner foot and then crosses the bar face down with the body and legs straddling it. However, in both these techniques, the centre of mass (where the whole weight of the body is at a particular point during motion) is pretty high. In the earlier techniques, a jumper had to lift the body almost all at once over the bar which needed much more energy and strength. The Fosbury flop is more efficient because as an athlete arches over the bar, the centre of mass is lower. In the flop, the whole body is never over the bar at the same time
Was Fosbury a favourite ahead of the 1968 Olympics?
Fosbury, 21 at that time, was a medal contender but not the favourite. In fact, in the second trial for the Olympics at Echo Summit (2,250 metres above sea level), he had finished third. He had topped the first trial, but the location, Los Angeles, was at sea level and officials felt it may not be ideal because Mexico City was at a high altitude.
In a highly competitive Olympic final, when the bar was raised to 2.24 metres (only two athletes had ever jumped higher back then), Fosbury failed to clear in his first two attempts. Ed Caruthers, his USA teammate, was the only other jumper fighting for gold and he too missed his first two attempts. Caruthers failed in his third but Fosbury sailed over, with a few inches between his C-shaped body and the bar.
By the next Olympics, 28 of the 40 competitors used the Fosbury Flop. “I thought that after I won the gold, one or two jumpers would start using it, but I never really contemplated that it would become the universal technique. Yet, it only took a generation,” Fosbury had said.
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