Saturday, February 13, 1999
By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Dick Fosbury is conducting a clinic at
Punahou School today and Monday.
The flop that
Dick Fosbury's unusualBy Pat Bigold
method won him Olympic
gold and revolutionized
the high jump
WHEN 21-year-old Dick Fosbury broke the Olympic high jump record by clearing the bar with his back to it at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, track and field traditionalists were aghast.
It came during a decade of turbulence in which many traditions were wrenched painfully from their moorings.
It came during an Olympics chock full of precedents (26 of a possible 30 track records shattered) and stark drama such as the black glove protest of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the national anthem.
Fosbury's act was not a political statement. But to some, it was just as unsettling.
"Kids imitate champions," said U.S. Olympic coach Payton Jordan at the time. "If they try to imitate Fosbury, he will wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks."
Fosbury laughed long and hard this week when reminded of that quote.
"I do remember that and it was well put," said the partially graying 52-year-old who still maintains a sturdy 6-foot-4, 187-pound physique.
His stunning, and almost comical, break with the conventional straddle high jump sparked a revolution in the sport.
Today, the "Fosbury Flop" is the standard technique for high jumpers from high school to the Olympics.
But Fosbury still recalls the debate that raged in the press over his radical approach to the bar.
"There were some doctors who felt I was threatening kids' lives," he said.
In fact, the worst thing that Fosbury can recall ever happening to him while using the technique was missing the pit once in high school. Nor can he recall any flopper injuring himself or herself on a pit landing.
The false impression created by first observation of the Fosbury Flop was that the jumper landed on his neck, inviting disaster.
"Actually the jumpers land on their shoulders," Fosbury said.
But he made the world hold its breath at Mexico City.
"Spectators were in awe the first time they saw it," Fosbury said. "I remember the stadium was packed full with 80,000 people. As I went from the warmups to the competition, and the bar kept raising higher, there were 80,000 people going silent, watching this kid, this 'gringo,' take his mark, and rock back and forth preparing to take a jump."
Before the 1968 Summer Games, athletes used the straddle method -- clearing the bar with lead arm and leg and then the stomach. But even after Fosbury's record jump (7 feet, 4 1/4inches) was televised to America, tradition died hard.
"The problem with something revolutionary like that was that most of the elite athletes had invested so much time in their technique and movements that they didn't want to give it up, so they stuck with what they knew," Fosbury said.
He said it took a full decade before the flop began to dominate the sport.
"The revolution came about from the kids who saw it, and had nothing to lose. The kids who saw it on TV and said, 'Gosh, that looks fun -- let's do that.' Grade school kids who didn't have coaches who would say, 'No, you stick with the straddle.' "
Fosbury is conducting a free clinic today at Punahou for youngsters from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. And they can bring along the their coaches, some of whom were the impressionable grade school kids who became Fosbury's original disciples nearly 31 years ago.
He'll do the clinic again on Monday (9 a.m.-4 p.m.) at Punahou.
"The kids will want to know who is this old guy," said Fosbury, who doesn't mind admitting he began competitive high jumping into a sawdust pit.
He might get asked the question he's been asked repeatedly over the last three decades: Why the flop?
Fosbury said the answer lies in the fact that he was "a really uncoordinated and gangly" 6-3, 160-pound wannabe athlete.
"Until I reached high school, I had learned to use an antiquated jump style called the 'scissors,' where the jumper runs at the bar and goes over sort of sideways to the bar," Fosbury said. "You're sitting up over the bar and your legs do a scissors."
His Medford (Ore.) High coach told Fosbury he would never get anywhere with that style -- that he would have to learn the straddle, or "belly roll," as it was called by some.
Fosbury expressed his frustration. He couldn't master the straddle, so his coach allowed him to revert to the scissors for a May 1963 meet (he can't recall the exact date) at Grants Pass.
It was on that day, as the bar raised two inches at a time, that he began to lift his hips and his shoulders went back in reaction. The flop was born.
"My mind was driving everything and my body had to try to figure out what it had to do to keep up with what my mind was doing," Fosbury said. "My mind wanted me to get over the bar, and intuitively, it figured out what was the most efficient way to get over the bar. I could only jump so high with the old form (scissors), so I changed it."
The other question often asked is, who coined the Fosbury Flop term?
The answer is Fosbury himself.
"In 1968, when I was having success indoors with it, someone asked me what I called it," he said. "I remembered a photo caption in The Medford Mail-Tribune from my high school days that read something like, 'Fosbury flops over the bar.' So, I replied, 'It's called the Fosbury Flop.' "
Fosbury now runs an engineering firm in Idaho. But he's still fit enough to have won a bronze at the World Masters competition last summer in Eugene, Ore., on the 30th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympics.