In Memoriam: Dick Fosbury, A Track And Field Legend

1968: Dick Fosbury of the USA clears the bar in the high jump competition with his dramatic new jumping style. Few competitors have had such a dramatic impact on their event as Fosbury did in the high jump at the Games of 1968

Photo Credit: Tony Duffy/Allsport via Getty Images

He not only won the crowd over, but he won over the entire sport. His new style was validated with a gold medal. He broke the Olympic record on worldwide television.

By Robert Marchetti - Coaching Corner

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    If you are a high jumper, you may want to put a small black band around one of the straps of your uniform top this outdoor season.

    You may want to do that to honor a track and field innovator who still impacts the event you compete in today. He invented the style you use in the high jump.

    His name was Richard Fosbury, and he passed away on March 12th at age 76 due to lymphoma, the New York Times reported. 

    If you don't know of him, this article will hopefully familiarize you with the athlete who made a revolutionary contribution to athletics -- and perhaps to your journey through the sport of high jumping.

    Richard 'Dick' Fosbury won the Olympic Gold Medal in high jump at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. Winning was amazing enough, but it was how he did it that meant so much more. Even today, his impact is remembered. 

    Fosbury won the Olympics by going over the crossbar backwards. He went over head first, his back facing the crossbar and landing on his back on the high jump mat. This technique became known as "The Fosbury Flop."

    If this seems uneventful and standard for 2023, it wasn't at the time.

    All of the other jumpers at the 1968 Olympics, and at every previous track meet in history before it, went over the bar facing forward. They cleared with one foot leading the way over the bar -- never head first.

    But Fosbury went to the blind side. He went over backwards with the bar out of his view. He was facing the sky.

    Once he got over the top of the bar, it was behind him. He couldn't see it. Despite that, he seemed to sail over the bar and around it as though he had built in radar. He flowed past the top of the bar with ease.

    And he was fast. He approached the takeoff phase like a sprinter. He took off farther out than other jumpers and landed farther into the pit. His flop style worked in conjunction with speed better than any previous technique.

    Years before, when Fosbury had the idea to flop over the bar as a teenager, he was considered an "oddball," at least as he put it. His high jump style was such a departure from track and field orthodoxy that when he first started experimenting with it at Medford High School in Oregon, most onlookers were cynical.

    Yet it worked for him.

    None of the traditional styles suited him, so he invented his own. He started going higher and higher with the flop, and for the next few years he continued to work on mastering it.

    By the time he got to Oregon State University in the late 1960s, his coach, Bernie Wagner, attempted to change his style back to a more traditional technique.

    Except, by using the flop he became one of the few 7-foot high jumpers in the NCAA. So his coached wisely relented and Fosbury's pursuit of refining the flop was allowed to continue.

    Still, no one else was convinced. Fosbury was the only jumper in the country going over the bar backwards. He was seen as an anomaly jumper with a gimmick style that one would not even consider emulating. He also wasn't famous.

    He was known only in the niche community of college high jumpers. Soon though, his life as an athlete in obscurity would change. That change would happen in October of 1968 at the Olympic Games -- the biggest stage in sports.

    Fosbury barely made the U.S. team and was not a favorite to win a medal. As the Olympic competition went on, though, it started to become apparent that he was a force. By the time of the Games he was 21 years old and he had mastered the style that he invented. He didn't miss.

    He not only won the crowd over, but he won over the entire sport. His new style was validated with a gold medal. He broke the Olympic record on worldwide television.

    Immediately after Fosbury won, the next generation of young jumpers all over the world began to try out his style. They found it worked for them as well.

    At the following Olympics in 1972, approximately half the male high jumpers were already using the flop, including the 1972 women's Olympic champion. By 1976, all of the medalists and nearly all of the finalists used the flop.

    Since 1984, no Olympic finalist has jumped any other way except with the flop.

    Fosbury's influence on records was equally impactful. In the aftermath of 1968, the records piled up. Dwight Stones became the first flopper to break the world record in 1973. Since then, 11 other male jumpers have broken the world record with 10 of them using Fosbury's style.

    On the women's side, the first World record set using the flop was in 1972, and since 1978 every woman's world record has been set with the flop. Stefka Kostadinova is the current women's world record holder at an amazing 6 feet, 10.25 inches. 

    From the onset of the modern Olympic Games starting in 1896, it took 60 years until Charles Dumas became the first man to clear 7 feet in 1956.

    After Fosbury, it took only 21 years for the first man to clear 8 feet: And Javier Sotomayor, who did so in 1989, also used the flop. 

    It wasn't just going over backwards where Fosbury impacted the sport.

    On account of Fosbury, the layout of high jump aprons were re-designed to accommodate the flop because everyone rapidly adopted his style, which rendered the old apron shape obsolete. The landing mats were made thicker and higher for landing on the back from higher heights.

    Photo Credit: Ettore Griffoni/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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    The "J" shaped approach that jumpers use nowadays? Fosbury invented it.

    That ritualistic rocking up and back that jumpers do before they start their approach?

    Fosbury popularized that, too. People imitated his technique and his mannerisms because he was on to something.

    It has been said of Fosbury that he was a rebel, a radical, a man who went against the grain. Perhaps he was some of those things. The rub, however, was that he never let the track establishment coax him out of his eccentric jumping style. In reality, he wasn't against the grain.

    He was the first to really be with it.

    The flop works with the laws of nature. It cooperates with the laws of physics. Fosbury capitalized on centrifugal force, momentum and rotary dynamics. He didn't fight against those things.

    His technique looked effortless not because there wasn't effort needed, but because it channeled energy and eliminated extra and unnecessary effort. More so than jumpers who came before him, his bar clearances were a result of what he did while he was still on the ground approaching the bar.

    His style was efficient and it was conducive for more run-up velocity, thus more force was achieved off of the takeoff. He ran into the sky.

    The rub, however, was that he never let the track establishment coax him out of his eccentric jumping style. In reality, he wasn't against the grain. He was the first to really be with it.

    Jumpers before Fosbury had to muscle through strenuous motions in the air to avoid hitting the crossbar, jerking and contorting and manipulating legs and arms. Fosbury just floated through a parabolic flight curve, relaxed in the air, draped back over the bar and only had to drop his hips on the other side as he tumbled away in the clear.

    It all worked in harmony with the rules of science and the universe. Those things were always available to high jumpers. He was the first to uncover it all.

    Fosbury never tried to license his style. He wasn't territorial with his invention. He didn't attempt to guilt anyone else out of utilizing it. He gave it to the world in 1968 and he seemed happy that so many others borrowed it.

    Of course, the reason they borrowed the flop en masse was because of how well it worked. There was no professional track and field during Fosbury's era. He retired early.

    He graduated college and became a civil engineer, which was his dream job. He also served as head of the US Olympic Athletes Alumni Association for a time. On the unfortunate day of his passing, the most commonly themed sentiment about Fosbury one could read on the internet written by ex-high jumpers was something like:

    "I would have never jumped as high as I did without using his style."

    Fosbury is survived by his family and close friends who knew him personally as a man.

    To them, he will surely be missed dearly.

    He will never be missed in the sport because he has left a lasting gift, and every jumper will use his technique not only today, but in many tomorrows to come. 

    Prayers and condolences to the Fosbury family. Rest in peace Mr. Fosbury.

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