In Mexico’s Estadio Olimpico, a crowd of 80,000 gasped as high jumper Dick Fosbury flew over the bar at seven feet, four and a half inches to win a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics and set an Olympic record.
It wasn’t only the height that astounded them (Russia’s Valery Brumel still held the world record at seven feet, five and three fourths) but Fosbury’s novel approach: head first and flat on his back.
Before jumping, Fosbury would stand at the start of the runway, sometimes for several minutes, meditating, worrying, visualizing himself clearing the bar. “I have to psych myself up,” said the nervous jumper. “It’s positive thinking, convincing myself that I’ll make it.”
Then he’d bolt down the runway, just left of center, plant his right (outside) foot firmly parallel to the bar, and spring up, pivoting quickly so his back was to the bar, which he glimpsed behind, then beneath him from the corner of one eye. With his back parallel to the ground and crosswise to the bar, his legs dangled down on the starting side, till he jacknifed them up to clear the bar and land—appallingly enough—on his back or the nape of his neck. The usual pile of sawdust did not make for a welcoming landing base, so Fosbury finished his backward flight on three feet of foam.
Fosbury did not deliberately set about to revolutionize the world of high jumping, nor even to invent a sensational method for himself. The Fosbury Flop, as the jump is commonly called (christened by a sportswriter, in Fosbury’s hometown, Medford, Oregon), sort of evolved. “I didn’t change my style,” Fosbury told Sports Illustrated’s Roy Blount. “It changed inside me.”
Fosbury started jumping in fifth grade and was still using the scissors method in high school to clear five-four. This is a sideways jump in which the athlete kicks up the leg nearer the bar, crosses in a sitting position, then brings the trailing leg up and over as the other leg comes down. He tried the conventional straddle (crossing the bar on one’s stomach, with one’s body parallel to the bar) but it just didn’t feel right, so he went back to the scissors. “As the bar increased,” Fosbury recollects, “I started laying out more, and pretty soon I was flat on my back.” He cleared five-ten at the time and the seed was planted for the Fosbury Flop.
Fosbury met with a lot of resistance from skeptical coaches along the way. It took a flying flop of about seven feet over a six-six bar to convince Fosbury’s college coach Berny Wagner that the flop was more than a funny spectacle. “The physics of his jump are good,” Wagner told The New York Times. “Dick exposes less of himself to the bar than any other high jumper.”
Not only did Fosbury go on to glory with his backward, potentially hazardous leap, the technique became widely used among high jumpers. But the innovator himself said in 1968, “Sometimes I see movies, and I really wonder how I do it.”