As noted in another entry in this compilation of the 101 Greatest Olympic Moments, the 1968 Mexico City Olympics saw a leap or two into the record books. One was incredibly long, thanks to the efforts of Bob Beamon who launched himself into Olympic history with his 8.91 metre sail into the men’s long jump pit. However Beamon wasn’t the only US field athlete to grab his particular event by the scruff of the neck and turn it into something new and revolutionary. The other was Richard ‘Dick’ Fosbury, a student at the University of Oregon who began the downfall of the old Olympic high jump routine of western and eastern rolls, scissors and straddle jumps with his eponymous “Fosbury Flop”.
Dick Fosbury started his career as a high jumper without such revolutionary technical visions. In fifth grade at school Fosbury discovered through his own body shape that of all athletic events the high jump was perhaps the most apt for him, and starting with the scissor technique by the age of 16 he had changed to the straddle then back to scissors, with a backwards twist helping him hit 1.75 metres (5ft 10 in). Gradually changing his layout over the bar into an almost horizontal position, by 1965 and his senior year in high school the combination of the backward layout over the high jump bar had almost completed its evolution for Fosbury, taking him to a height of 1.98 metres. It was at a national junior’s meet that he was signed by Oregon State University coach Berny Wagner, which formed the final link in Fosbury’s development as a ‘flopping’ high jumper.
Toying briefly (at Wagner’s suggestion) with a return to the straddle Fosbury convinced his coach that his “Fosbury Flop” was the way to higher jumps after the coach filmed for curiousity’s sake the 19 year old using his own technique. In an unexpected fashion Fosbury easily cleared 1.95 metres (6ft 6in), climbing to a possible 2.1 metres whilst wearing a pair of plaid bermuda shorts. This ensured that Dick Fosbury would take the flop to the US Track and Field selection trials for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Meanwhile in Canada the female high jumper Debbie Brill had also discovered the results attainable from using a high jumping technique where the bar was passed backwards horizontally. The so-called “Brill Bend” may have been seen by Dick Fosbury whilst he was at OSU, however there is no evidence to show that either he nor Brill copied each other. The major difference between the two techniques was whereas the “Brill Bend” was recorded as early as 1966, the “Fosbury Flop” was the one which made the longest and most important impression at an Olympic Games, during the field program at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Unfortunately for Debbie Brill she wasn’t able to match the publicity (or the Olympic success) of Dick Fosbury’s high jump style.
Dick Fosbury had to take his new jumping technique to another level as part of qualifying for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Requiring a jump of 2.17 metres (7 ft 3 in) to make the US team he did so, falling only five centimetres of then men’s world record holder Valery Brumel (URS). Later Fosbury narrowed the gap to only 1 inch (2.54 centimetres). However Brumel was unable to respond to the challenge from the exciting new American high jumper, and was destined not to meet Fosbury in Mexico City. Three years earlier Brumel had been involved in a motorcycle accident which almost destroyed his right leg. With the Tokyo gold medallist and world record holder unable to participate in the 1968 high jump, the field was just that little bit more open.
Like so many times in the period 1952-1988, the main challengers for the gold medal in the men’s high jump at Mexico City came down to a East versus West battle. The Soviets sent two well credentialled jumpers, Valentin Gavrilov of the Dynamo Moscow club and Valery Skvortsov who had jumped 2.17 metres at the 1968 European Indoor Championships. For the US there was Fosbury and his compatriot Edward Caruthers. Caruthers like Skvortsov had been in Tokyo four years earlier (where the American came 8th, the Soviet 14th), and like all bar Fosbury used more traditional methods of clearing the high jump bar. Also competing for the US was Reynaldo Brown; he, Fosbury and Caruthers had all cleared 2.17 metres at the trials, but it was Caruthers who had won that meet (Fosbury came third). As an added wrinkle to the story of Fosbury’s qualification alongside Brown and Caruthers was his flunking out of OSU and expiration of his draft deferment (Fosbury evaded military service due to a congenital spinal problem). The rarefied air of Mexico City would see a remarkable high jump competition.
Surprisingly on the day of the final itself Dick Fosbury went barely challenged. From his first starting jump right up to 2.22 metres every first attempt by Fosbury was achieved. The Mexican spectators called out “Ole!” with every leap, gaining in volume as Fosbury leapt higher. Brown dropped out at 2.14 metres, whilst Skvortsov finished in fourth with a best jump only 2 centimetres higher. The final three were Gavrilov, Caruthers and Fosbury. Wearing 802 on his top Gavrilov tried to clear 2.22 metres, which would have kept him level with the two Americans. Unfortunately for the Soviet he failed, leaving Caruthers and Fosbury to battle out for the gold.
Propelled by a mixture of self-belief, crowd support, a remarkably successful new technique and awareness that with a failed jump Fosbury would give Caruthers an opprtunity to pass him, Dick Fosbury had the bar raised to 2.24 metres. As in most of his adult high jumping career as well as for every jump he had taken at the 1968 Summer Olympics Fosbury ran in a looping curve towards the bar for this last effort. Then at the last moment he shifted from an inward lean to an outward lean, his body pivoting and spinning so that his back was to the bar. Arcing upwards Fosbury carried himself over the bar, arching his back and angling himself 90 degress from the vertical. The jump was good, the bar stayed up and the “Fosbury Flop” had taken its first practitioner to an unassailable lead. Caruthers tried to match Dick Fosbury but couldn’t, thus winning the silver. The gold medal and (perhaps just as historically important) the popular ‘patent’ on the radical style that made 2.24 metres possible was now and forever in Dick Fosbury’s possession.