Fosbury Flop – How One Man Changed The High Jump Forever

Dick Fosbury

The Olympic high jump changed forever on October 20th, 1968. The location was Mexico City. All was normal until a gangly, 21-year-old civil engineering student with mismatched running shoes did this.

Fosbury flop
Dick Fosbury


He Changed The High Jump History

That man's name was Dick Fosbury and although it may not seem unusual to your eyes now, in 1968 it was revolutionary. On that day in Mexico City, the Olympic Games saw its first Fosbury Flop and it has rarely seen anything else ever since.

The high jump has been a part of the Olympic Games since the beginning. “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together” it’s there in the motto and down the years, techniques have changed to inch that little bit higher. What started with a standing jump went through a period where scissors were the vogue. Then a straddle, and the “Western Roll”, each a little better than the last. 

Engineering Lover

But over in Portland, Oregon, in the mid-1960s, The young Dick Fosbury was a lousy straddler. He watched his hero Valery Brumel break record after record, but the only thing he broke was his hand. Someone had bet him he couldn’t jump over a chair and he couldn’t. But that was before he tried something new. He married up his engineering know-how with what his body was doing naturally as he ran up to the bar. 

How Dick Fosbury Jump

New Technique - Fosbury Flop

He applied some mechanics and learned that a jumper's center of gravity can stay below the bar by arching his back, even as the body sailed over it. He said, If you get into that perfect arch, it's a mechanical advantage to use that technique.

Jumpers before took off from the foot nearest the bar and span in the air to kick their other leg over first, But Fosbury changed the run-up and flipped the technique. Sawdust replaced sand, then foam appeared for the jumpers to land on. It was all in place for him to give it a try. 

Out there in Mexico City, Fosbury was already not like the other guys. He didn’t like to practice. He was a loner & missed the opening ceremony to drive out to see the pyramids. Watching the sunset and sleeping in a van. And his skills were as much in his head as in his legs.

1968 Summer Olympics

Fosbury psyched himself up for each jump, winning the 80,000 crowds onto his side and getting them to will him over the bar. When the newspapers first saw him jump before the Games, they said he was like a “two-legged camel”. 

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They dismissed him as a curiosity, but this camel went through the start of the competition without knocking the bar off once.

 There were only three men left at 2.20 metres. All were guaranteed at least a bronze. Ed Caruthers, United States, and Valentin Gavrilov, Soviet Union, both joined Fosbury over 2.20 metres, but Gavrilov couldn’t get over 2.22 metres. Caruthers couldn’t get over 2.24 metres, but Fosbury, like a champion, dug deep. 

His leap over the bar at 2.24 meters set a new Olympic record and won him a gold medal. He never came back to the Olympics as an athlete after that day in Mexico City, but his name sure did. 

He said, “I think quite a few kids “will begin trying it my way now.” 

The Fosbury Flop is now the only way to fly.

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