Dick Fosbury took a moment to meditate as 80,000 people looked down at him from their seats in Mexico City’s Olympic stadium. The fans at the 1968 Olympic Games didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to witness not only the setting of an Olympic record, but the complete revolution of a sport.
Just three or four years earlier, nobody in the world of athletics had even heard the name Dick Fosbury. As a long and lean teenager from Oregon, Fosbury was just another kid interested in track and field. He wanted to compete in the high jump, but he had failed to clear the height required to participate in a high school track meet during his sophomore year. Shortly after, Fosbury had a stroke of genius.
You see, the high jump is a simple event. The athletes jump over a bar and whoever jumps the highest wins the event. Usually, each athlete will toss their body over the bar and crash onto a padded landing pit on the other side. Like most schools in the 1960s, the landing pit at Fosbury’s high school was made of wood chips and sawdust. Before his junior year, however, Fosbury’s high school became one of the first to install a foam landing pit and that gave him a crazy idea.
What if, instead of jumping the conventional way with his face toward the bar, Fosbury turned his body, arched his back, and went over the bar backwards while landing on his neck and shoulders?
The “Fosbury Flop”
Fosbury’s new style was criticized at first. One local newspaper said that he looked like “a fish flopping in a boat” while another called him the “World’s Laziest High Jumper” and ran a photo of him sliding over the bar backwards.
By 1968, however, Fosbury was the only one laughing as he used the unconventional technique to win the NCAA championship and qualify for the Olympic Games in Mexico City. By the time the games were finished, Fosbury not only set a new Olympic record by jumping 2.24 meters (7.35 feet), but also changed the entire philosophy of the sport. Within 10 years his technique became the de facto standard for high jumpers everywhere. Nearly every gold medal winner and major record holder in the last 35 years has used the “Fosbury Flop.”