How One Man Changed the High Jump Forever | The Olympics on the Record
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How One Man Changed the High Jump Forever | The Olympics on the Record

October 24, 2019

Olympic goes to Mexico. The Olympic high jump changed
for ever on October 20th 1968. The location was Mexico City. All was normal until a gangly, 21-year-old
civil engineering student in mis-matched
running shoes did this. 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,”
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. 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 Fosbury
broke was his hand. Someone had bet him he couldn’t
jump over a chair and he couldn’t. But that was before Fosbury
tried something new. He married up his engineering
know-how with what his body was doing naturally
as he ran up to the bar. Fosbury applied some mechanics and learned that by
arching his back, a jumper’s centre of gravity
can stay below the bar, even as the body sailed
over it. If they 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 Fosbury
to give it a try. Out there in Mexico City, Fosbury was already not like
the other guys. He didn’t like to practise.
He was a loner. He 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. Fosbury psyched himself up for
each jump, winning the 80,000 crowd on to his side and getting them
to will him over the bar. When the newspapers first saw
Fosbury jump before the Games, they said he was like
a “two-legged camel”. 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 metres set a new Olympic record
and won him a gold medal. Fosbury 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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