1968 Olympics Men’s High Jump — Fosbury Flop Loosens Crowd

(Reproduced from the October/November 1968 Olympic edition of T&FN)

Ever since last winter when Dick Fosbury and his unorthodox backward-flop high-jumping style became the rage of track and field, he has electrified spectators, puzzled coaches and beaten opponents with his self-evolved style. In Mexico City’s 1-mile high altitude, he did it all again, flipping over 7-4¼ for Olympic and American records and the US’s first high jump gold since 1956. Fosbury’s competitive performance, his style aside, was simply sensational. He cleared every height he attempted through 7-3 3/8 on his first try, showed supreme confidence by passing 7-1 and came through with an easy clearance of 7-4¼ on his third try to better John Thomas’ eight-year-old US mark by a half-inch. But perhaps the most amazing aspect of all was that Fosbury had every one of 80,000 fans who jammed Estadio Olimpico on the final day of track competition, October 20, captivated.

No announcement was made when he jumped but everyone knew when he was up. After he cleared the bar and plopped into the Port-a-Pit landing on his shoulder blades, the crowd exploded into wild cheers and applause. One German pressman proclaimed, “Only a triple somersault off a flying trapeze with no net below could be more thrilling.” A Hungarian discus thrower who spoke no English still managed a thick “Fantastic” at Fosbury’s every clearance.

And the boyish-looking Oregon State University student responded enthusiastically to the crowd as he grinned broadly, threw up his hands and hopped out of the pit as he cleared each height. He was clearly the most popular winner of the Games. Even the press, usually reserved even at these emotion-charged Olympics, cheered at his every jump.

Fosbury was up against the toughest field ever assembled to do battle for the Olympic title. There were 17 7-footers eligible to compete but the two young Swedes, Bo Jonsson and Jan Dahlgren, stayed home injured and East Ger many’s young Joachim Kirst, with a top of 7-1, finished the decathlon the same day as the high-jump qualifying. Those who were there, though, comprised a tough, talented field.

Only six jumpers, Fosbury and Ed Caruthers of the US, Lawrie Peckham of Australia, Valeriy Skvortsov of the USSR, Giacomo Crosa of Italy and Ahmed Senuusi of Chad cleared the qualifying height of 7-4 in the preliminaries, October 19, which had the field of 39 split into two groups, one jumping at the north end of the stadium and the other at the south end. Consequently, seven more who cleared 6-11 were added to the final to get the necessary 12 finalists. Among this group were 17-year-old American Reynaldo Brown and 7-2-plus jumpers Robert Sainte-Rose of France and Valentin Gavrilov of the USSR.

Most notable among those eliminated were Viktor Bolshov, the Soviet veteran who was sixth at Rome and had cleared 7-1 this year to make the Olympics, West Germany’s young 7-footer Thomas Zacharias, Australia’s Peter Boyce, who shared the world lead at 7-3 with the three Americans, im proving Swede Kenneth Ludmark (7-1), France’s little (5-8) Henri Elliott who had also gone 7-11 and Chad veteran Mahamat Idriss.

The finals began the next day under warm sun and bright skies, but the competition was to stretch well over three hours and end in the cool evening. Everyone got over the lower heights with no trouble, while 6-10 resulted in the day’s first casualty, Yugoslavia’s Miodrag Todosijevic. At 6-11, Senuusi, Luis Garriga of Spain, West Germany’s Ingomar Sieghart and Sainte-Rose went out. The Frechman, wearing high-slit shorts similar to Eddy Ottoz’s “bikini” bottoms, showed little of the bounce which put him over 7-2 in practice.

At 7-4, the surprising Crosa, the two Soviets, Brown and Fosbury cleared on their first jumps but West Germany’s hefty Gunther Spielvogel needed two and Caruthers three. The Italian and German succumbed to 7-1 while the three Americans passed. Gavrilov popped over in another picture-perfect leap. Skvortsov seemed to hit a snag and barely scraped over on his third try, leaping out of the pit with a jig as the officials tacked 7/8” on.

Now it was strictly a US-Soviet affair. Brown missed badly twice but missed by the slimmest of margins on his third try. Fosbury took the full two minutes prior to the jump, building his psyche but clenching his fists this time instead of wiggling his fingers. Then he sped at the standards, was up and over easily. Skvortsov failed to clear his trailing knee twice and on his third jump simply got up and jumped, a beaten man, hitting the bar going up. Handsome young Gavrilov tried some of his own psyching as he passed. Caruthers, like

Skvortsov, missed twice. On his third try, he stared at the bar for a long while before clearing by two inches. He grinned broadly as he sauntered from the pit; he was the third man to tie Valeriy Brumel’s Olympic record within minutes.

The medal winners were now decided as the bar was raised to 7-2 5/8. Only their order remained to be determined. The three wasted no time, each clearing easily on his first attempt. Up went the bar to 7-3 ⅜. Fosbury again took the full two minutes, ignoring the relay runners who wandered throughout the jump area. He again drove powerfully at the bar, was up and over as the lead-off men of the 4×100 relay strained at the first exchange. For the first time, Gavrilov seemed tired and he missed all three times, coming closest on his second try. Caruthers missed once, but then cleared cleanly on his second. The bar went up to 7-4¼, a half-inch above Thomas’ American record set in 1960. Fosbury didn’t get his heels over quick enough in his first jump and the officials marked his first miss of the entire competition, preliminaries and finals. Caruthers missed his first try and each man couldn’t get over on their second jumps.

So now it was the last chance for each man. The marathon runners were entering the stadium, through a tunnel just across the track from the jump area. Fosbury stood in his trancelike pose. “I think about floating over the bar,” he said. Again he stood for two minutes, then rocked back on his heel and sped toward the bar. He drove powerfully off his right foot, arched his back and simply sailed over.

At that exact instant, US marathoner Ken Moore entered the stadium as the first Yank. Moore saw Fosbury clear the American record height and he threw his arms in the air, danced a jig step and shouted congratulations to Dick. The crowd roared with delight at the antics of the two young Americans.

Caruthers had one final chance. He took longer than usual before jumping — -he had been one of the promptest jumpers all day — and showed his consistent power in take-off but hit the bar on the way up. He lay for a moment in the pit, his eyes closed, but then jogged out and over to his elated teammate.

It seemed almost anti-climactic that Fosbury tried three times at a world record height of 7-6 but didn’t come close on any jump. He was Olympic champion and that was all that mattered. The award ceremony for Fosbury, Caruthers and Gavrilov was the last for track & field and on the stand Fosbury flashed his seemingly ever-present, boyishly impetuous grin. All three waved profusely to the crowd which responded with louder cheers than any during the competition.

Fosbury’s coach, Berny Wagner, pointed out another important factor. “Dick has a tremendously dynamic competitive attitude. It’s one of those intangibles but he has that superb competitive ability to come through when it counts most.” Fosbury had confidence in his ability all along and so did Wagner. Asked several days before how he thought Fosbury would do, Wagner replied frankly, “I think he’ll win at 7-4. Fosbury proved that was no idle boast.

Reportedly, at a press conference that evening at the Olympic Village, a press aide told the assembled scribes, “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but the high jumpers are too tired to come down to talk with you. But the marathoners will be here in a moment.” Yes, it had been a long day for Dick Fosbury and company. Fosbury, a civil engineering student at Oregon State, admitted later he was completely drained after the competition. “I’m as tired as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’d like a shower and then to see my mother.”

For Fosbury, the victory was a culmination, the epitome of his constant striving to prove that his style was not just the off-beat creation of one man but a real break-through in the event. “It’s a very consistent style,” Dick explained. “Once you master the technique, you can concentrate on developing strength. I think my improvement this year (6-10 to 7-4) is due to weight-training more than anything. I don’t jump that much in practice.” Ten days prior to the competition, he had cleared 6-11 in practice, best ever by an inch — and in only his fourth practice session of the year.

The ’68 Olympics men’s high jump results as they appeared in the October/November ’68 issue.