Athletics: Jumper who turned top of the flops

Dick Fosbury's intuition led to a revolution 30 years ago. Simon Turnbull talks to him
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The Independent Online
HE WAS the ultimate sporting flop. He still is today. In the three decades that have passed since the 1968 Olympic Games, the names of Bob Beamon, Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Jim Hines and David Hemery have passed into history but Dick Fosbury's has never left the track and field arena. When he struck gold in Mexico City 30 years ago on Tuesday the world outside the United States collegiate circuit beheld his unique high-jumping technique for the first time. Since then Dick Fosbury's Flop has become the high jump.

"It's funny," Fosbury said, taking a break from his morning workload on Thursday, "but when I came home from the Olympics a few of my friends said to me that I would go down in history. I couldn't imagine what that meant. But it has been amazing to see the revolution of the event. It was the kids who created it. They wanted to do the Fosbury Flop. It just seems natural now when I watch the Olympic Games or the world championships on television and see everyone doing it. I've had a long time to get used to it."

Fosbury is 51 now. Divorced, he lives with his 16-year-old son, Erich, in Ketchum, the Idaho ski resort where the bells tolled for Ernest Hemingway in 1961. Hemingway spent the last year of his life in Ketchum and blew his brains out there. "His house is just down the road from mine, actually," Fosbury said. An Oregon man originally, Fosbury settled in Ketchum 21 years ago. He runs an engineering company in the former mining town. It is with Mexico City, though, that he will always be identified.

Fosbury was a 21-year-old student from Oregon State University when, in his first international competition, he won the Olympic high jump title in the Mexican capital. He did so by literally turning his back on track and field convention. He did not high jump in traditional sideways style, using the straddle, scissors or western roll techniques. He pivoted 180 degrees on approaching the bar and launched over it backwards. The experts said he would never succeed, that he would break his back. Instead, to the wonderment of the watching world, Fosbury broke the Olympic record, clearing 2.24m to snatch the gold medal by 2cm from his team-mate Ed Carruthers.

The high-jumping fraternity stopped mocking Fosbury's Flop. They proceeded to adopt it instead, pushing the boundary of human levitation up to 2.45m, the world record height Javier Sotomayor set in Salamanca five years ago. The sages said that Fosbury had been a genius all along, that he had used his knowledge as a student of physics and engineering to determine scientifically his pioneering technique. Fosbury laughed at the misconception that has become accepted fact down the years. "It was not based on science or analysis or thought or design," he said. "None of those things. Just intuition.

"It was simply a natural technique that evolved. I developed it in competition. There was no thought or design process. I just began to change my technique one day. It was at a high school meet, the Rotary Invitation, in Grants Pass, Oregon, in the month of May 1963. I was 16. I can remember the coaches looking through the rule book that day to see if what I was doing was legal, which it was. I ran into that over the next couple of years in high school competition: the opposing coaches checking the rules. But people really didn't take much notice until I started to come on in 1968."

What people wanted to know most of all, when Fosbury suddenly jumped into Olympic team contention with a 2.13m clearance at an indoor meeting in Oakville, California, in January 1968, was the name of his curious jumping method. "I hadn't really thought about it," he recalled, "but I remembered a caption on a photo when I was in high school that said, 'Fosbury flops over the bar'. It was a description of what the style actually was, similar to a fish flopping out of water, so I quoted that.

"I said, 'Well back home they call it the Fosbury Flop.' And that was that. It was an instant hit. It was alliterative. The journalists liked it. And I liked the irony of it, a flop being the opposite of success. I kind of appreciated that. It's held up pretty well too."

It has indeed. When Charles Austin won the Olympic high jump competition in Atlanta two years ago he Fosbury flopped to gold. When Sotomayor became world champion in Athens last year he Fosbury flopped to gold. And when Artur Partyka took the European title ahead of Dalton Grant in Budapest two months ago he Fosbury flopped to gold too.

The day when Dick Fosbury himself flopped to gold has already been commemorated in Moscow, where he attended a presentation ceremony with Valentin Gavrilov, the Mexico bronze medallist, in March, and in Eugene, where he attended a reunion of the 1968 United States Olympic team in May. It will be celebrated again in a fortnight's time when Fosbury returns to his alma mater, Oregon State University, to mark the 30th anniversary of his homecoming from Mexico.

"I was also invited to the World Masters Games in Oregon in August," Fosbury said. "I was asked to do a clinic and to go to the opening ceremony but when I got there they asked me if I would jump as well. I really didn't want to. I didn't want to embarrass myself. But I did compete, for the first time in 25 years. I jumped 1.60m and I was pleased with that. I brought home the bronze medal. And I walked away in one piece.

"But the really interesting thing was you could see the history of the event. In the older age-groups, from 45 upwards, the jumpers were straddling. The younger jumpers, from 35 to 45, were all floppers. That was interesting - to see the historical perspective - because kids these days don't even realise that there used to be a different technique."

The reason for that is what happened in Mexico City 30 years ago this week: when Dick Fosbury's Flop became an Olympic success.