Olympics: Four decades later, we're all still doing the Fosbury Flop

The Olympics in Mexico City raised the bar in the high jump with the unveiling of a new, enduring technique

It is 40 years now since Dick Fosbury became the ultimate sporting flop.At 61, he remains so. His name and his once-revolutionary high-jumping technique live on in the track- and-field arena, four decades on from his Olympic success in Mexico City.

Fosbury's Flop has become the high jump. When Javier Sotomayor of Cuba pushed the boundary of unassisted human elevation up to 2.45m in Salamanca 15 years ago, breaking the 8ft barrier by half an inch, he got there with a Fosbury Flop. And when the latter-day leading lights of the high jump, Sweden's Stefan Holm and Croatia's Blanka Vlasic, go for Olympic gold in Beijing three weeks from now they, too, will be doing so with Fosbury Flops.

As it happens, Dick Fosbury will be in the Bird's Nest Stadium to watch their soaring deeds. He is in the process of retiring from the engineering business he runs in Ketchum, Idaho, to concentrate on his role as president of the World Olympians Association.

"One of our prime activities is to host an Olympians Reunion Centre at each of the Games," he said, speaking from his Ketchum home. "It's a place where the Olympians can come and meet other Olympians – a hospitality facility, basically. I've been to the Reunion Centre before when I've been at the Games. This is the first time I'll actually be in charge of running it."

What will it feel like, though, when he gets to the stadium and sees all of those Fosbury Floppers? "It'll be just terrific," he said. "After four decades, the technique is what all of the high jumpers are using. They all have their own individual way of jumping but they're using more or less the generic form, and it's exciting for me to watch."

The world at large first beheld it in Mexico City in 1968 – at the Olympic Games in which Bob Beamon took his quantum leap in the long jump, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their Black Power salutes at the medal ceremony for the 200m and Britain's David Hemery struck 400m hurdles gold in world-record time. Fosbury was 21, a student at Oregon State University. The high jump in the Mexican capital was his first international competition. He won it by literally turning his back on track-and-field convention.

Fosbury did not high-jump in the traditional sideways style, using the straddle, scissors or western roll techniques. On approaching the bar, he pivoted 180 degrees and launched over it backwards. The experts said he would never succeed, that he would break his back. Instead, Fosbury broke the Olympic record, clearing 2.24m to snatch the gold medal by 2cm from his United States team-mate Ed Carruthers. The high-jumping fraternity stopped mocking Fosbury's Flop. They proceeded to adopt it instead.

Suddenly, the sages said that Fosbury had been a genius all along, that he had used his knowledge as a student of physicsand engineering to determine scientifically his pioneering technique. The truth is rather different. "It was not by design at all," Fosbury confided. "It was just simply intuition. It was not based on science or analysis or thought or design. It was all by instinct. It happened one day at a com-petition. My mind was driving my body to work out the best way to get over the bar."

That natural epiphany came five years before the Mexico Olympics, in May 1963 at a high-school meeting, the Rotary Invitation at Grants Pass, Oregon. Fosbury was 16 at the time. "I can remember the coaches looking through the rule book that day to see if what I was doing was legal, which it was," he recalled. "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 US 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 confessed, "but I remembered a photo caption in my local paper which said, 'Fosbury flops over the bar'. I'd picked up on the alliteration of that and more or less kept it at the back of my mind until journalists got curious about it.

"I was starting to show some success and people were asking me, 'Well, what is this? How do you describe this?' And I remembered that caption and it seemed to work very well. 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. And so has Fosbury himself, though it is a good while since he last performed his Flop in competition. That was in August 1998 when he was invited to the World Masters Games in Oregon. "I was asked to do a clinic and to go to the opening ceremony," he recalled, "but when I got there they asked me if I would jump as well. I didn't want to embarrass myself but I did compete, for the first time in 25 years, and jumped 1.60m. I was pleased with that. I brought home the bronze medal, and I walked away in one piece.

"That was it, but I still keep active with my track camps. I've got two that I run for kids of high-school age. I've done a camp for about 19 years in Maine on the East Coast, and I started one here in Idaho last year."

A native of Oregon, he has lived in Ketchum for 31 years. He founded his engineering firm in the mining town turned ski resort which is best known as the place where the bells tolled for Ernest Hemingway in 1961. The literary giant spent the last year of his life in Ketchum, killed himself there and is buried in the town cemetery. "His house is just down the road from mine, actually," Fosbury said.

There is a link between the writer and the athlete. Hemingway's cousin's grandson has become one of the most proficient practitioners of Fosbury's Flop. Indeed only two Americans have taken it to greater heights than Matt Hemingway. The 2.38m he jumped indoors in Atlanta in 2000 places him third on the US all-time ranking list, behind Hollis Conway and Charles Austin, who have both cleared 2.40m. Now 35, Hemingway has not made the US team for the Beijing Olympics but he made the podium in Athens four years ago, taking silver behind Stefan Holm.

Fosbury himself never flopped from such a great height. His best jump remained the 2.24m that won him Olympic gold. His name, however, will survive for posterity in track and field.

"It's funny," he reflected, "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 high jump. 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 and see everyone doing it. I've had a long time to get used to it."