What a Jump!
How to revolutionize a sport: Dick Fosbury
Growing up and participating in sports, many of us ran and jumped without any thought of technique. We were glad to be champions of our families or neighbourhoods.
As we grew older, we noticed that the Olympians on our screens seemed to run or jump in similar ways, which sometimes were very different to what we did. Some of us eventually tried to emulate what we saw, and unsurprisingly, with varied degrees of success and injuries along the way. Watching a high jump competition nowadays, it is very noticeable that most of the competitors jump in a very similar way, which sees them going over the bar with their backs. This is what we now call the Fosbury Flop. It is named after Dick Fosbury, who shot to unexpected stardom with his weird style in 1968.
Fosbury’s experiments which led to him finding this technique started while he was in high school.
At the time, the most common technique of clearing the bar was the straddle method, while the scissor's, which was already considered a limiting technique, was Fosbury’s preferred style. After his high school coach tried to teach him a variant of the straddle method, Fosbury’s performances took a dip and he struggled to clear jumps around 1.5m. His best was eventually only a 1.63m which naturally, would have frustrated any aspiring male high jumper then. Now, such a person would probably be told not to bother or to concentrate on other endeavours. Fosbury was however determined to keep at it. This straddle technique which was supposed to have seen Fosbury go over the bar facing down, had him crashing into it instead.
Lately, we have had sports stars who wanted to compete without having to deal with the pressure involved with cameras and press conferences. It was the same for Fosbury. In a bid to escape the overwhelming attention he was receiving, and probably remain sane, he set off for Mexico’s mountains with teammate Gary Stenlund.
After media appearances on talk-shows, Fosbury in his introverted manner, concentrated on his civil engineering degree and drifted away from the sport. Despite his aversion to media attention, his name has not been forgotten and neither has his technique. 4 years later in 1972, more than half of the Olympic high jumpers were using the Fosbury Flop technique. Although the 1972 Olympic gold medallist, Juri Tarmak still used the straddle, it would be very difficult to find an elite high jumper who doesn’t use Fosbury’s technique nowadays. In fact, the last time an Olympic gold medal was won by an athlete, male or female, with the straddle was in 1976, when East Germany’s Rosemarie Ackermann became the female high jump Olympic champion. Straddles and scissors may rarely still be seen on playgrounds but that is where they usually end. It is fair to say they are now a thing of the past.
Some wonder whether Fosbury’s technique would have been allowed if it were already known about. Well, as there was nothing to say that it wasn’t allowed back then, the surprise worked in Fosbury’s favour. He did his own thing and it worked for him. Consequently, a technique which was previously mocked, became respected, a path once shunned, became widely trod. Fosbury walked his own path to Olympic glory and left a legacy that revolutionized his event, the high jump.