How Dick Fosbury Revolutionized High Jumping
Did you watch the Olympic high jump event on television this year? Whether you like the high jump or not, I'm sure you'll agree this may be the most inspiring story in Olympic history.
Dick Fosbury was a frustrated 15-year-old high school sophomore. His favorite sport was high jumping. In the initial meet of the year with the bar set at five feet, he was the first one eliminated. He had some success clearing five feet using the scissors technique, but his coach explained to him that the scissors was an antiquated technique that was rather inefficient. If he wanted to be a competent high jumper, he would have learn the western roll, a technique where the jumper tucked one leg under his chin as he passed sideways over the bar. As his coach explained, the western roll was the best technique and all the top high jumpers used it.
Dick practiced the western roll, but he just couldn’t get the hang of it. He had an idea and he asked his coach if he could revert to the scissors kick. Perhaps feeling that he couldn’t do any worse, his coach allowed him to give it a try.
Dick knew he had to bring his hips higher to avoid hitting the bar so as he hurdled towards the bar he started to arch his back and he easily cleared five feet four inches. As the bar was moved higher Dick arched his back more and more. With the bar at five feet ten inches, Dick arched so much that he ended up flat on his back. It was not very graceful, but he had jumped six inches higher than his previous best and finished fourth in the meet, a huge improvement from a few weeks earlier.
Dick started to practice and refine this new method. Instead of the western roll, in which the jumper lands on his feet or side, he would twist in the air and go over the bar looking skyward, landing on his head, neck, and shoulders. His junior year in high school, he jumped six feet two and half inches and set the school record. His senior year he finished second in the state. He started to get a lot of attention for his unusual jumping style -- people would often laugh when he went over the bar. A photographer for the Associated Press took a picture of him with the caption, “The world’s laziest high jumper.”
Despite finishing second in the state during his senior year in high school, there were no college scholarships offered. In a junior meet held the summer after his senior year, he jumped six feet seven inches and the Oregon State coach arranged for him to get a small scholarship for track.
The coach had a plan. He knew Dick was much better at flopping over the bar backwards than using the Western roll, but he thought he might eventually be a world-class high jumper if he could master the conventional technique. So they devised a plan where he would use his unconventional technique in meets so he could score well, but he would train on the western roll in practice so he could reach his potential.
In Dick’s junior year he cleared the bar at six feet ten inches and his coach gave up on the western roll and started to focus on improving the flop technique. Soon Dick was clearing seven feet and he decided to try out for the Olympics games in Lake Placid.
Word got around in high jump circles about the seven-foot jumper who was landing upside-down and many of the coaches and top athletes laughed, saying that no one could enter the world elite using such a ridiculous style. But Dick kept flopping and he finished third at the Olympic try-out and took the last space on the U.S. Olympic team. The year was 1968 and the Olympics were in Mexico City.
There was a huge field of high jumpers that year and the bar was set initially at six feet six inches. When Dick cleared the bar, the crowd laughed at the funny way he landed. But by the time the bar was raised to seven feet three quarter inches, they were not laughing, they were cheering. There were only three jumpers left and it was clear that he would get a medal, but which one?
Dick and his U.S. teammate cleared the bar, but Valentin Gavrilov of Russia missed. So there were only two jumpers left, Dick and his teammate from the U.S., Ed Caruthers. The bar was moved to seven feet four and one quarter inches. No one had ever jumped that high in Olympic history.
Dick failed to clear the bar on his first attempt for his first miss of the meet. He missed on his second attempt also. But on his third attempt, Dick Fosbury set the Olympic record and cleared the bar winning the gold medal.
On that day in 1968, Dick changed high jumping forever. While later others may have jumped higher, they did so using the technique Dick pioneered, the Fosbury Flop. I was more than pleased to have the opportunity to interview him recently about his pioneering accomplishments, which you will hear in the podcast below.