Profile Of A Champion — That Fosbury Flop

Fosbury’s eye-catching HJ technique had made the I February ’68 cover, foreshadowing a historic season ahead.

T&FN’s first feature article on high jump technique innovator Dick Fosbury, appeared in our II July 1968 issue. We have reproduced it below minus the original photographs.

Dick Fosbury has turned high jumping upside down.

As if any more proof was needed, Fosbury proved again at the NCAA Championships and the Los Angeles Olympic Trials that the “Fosbury Flop” is the most sensational form development in track & field in the last decade.

The boyish-looking Oregon State junior who created — and perfected — the back-to-the-bar, head-first high jumping style cleared an amazing 7-2¼ to annex the outdoor collegiate title in a new meet record. Just as amazing is the fact that he didn’t miss in the entire competition until the bar was raised to 7-3¼. If there were any skeptics left who didn’t believe the flop, Fosbury certainly proved himself and his style in grand style at Berkeley. At Los Angeles, he continued his winning ways, clearing 7-1.

Just as quickly as he turned high-jumping upside-down, Fosbury showed his style was of champion caliber. He first topped 7-feet indoors this winter, eventually reaching 7-1¼ and also collected the NCAA indoor crown. It took him the entire spring to reach 7-feet outdoors, but he has cleared that magic height when it has counted most. He won the Pac-8 Conference title at 7-0, his first 7-footer ever outdoors, and then reached his career high in the NCAA.

“I was surprised to do so well,” Fosbury said after his NCAA win. He is tied with Otis Burrell and Mike Bowers as the fifth-highest American jumpers ever and is an equal tenth on the all-time world list. Quite a list of achievements for the only man to clear 7-feet backwards.

After winning the LA Trials, Fosbury took one try at 7-3 but then retired, explaining later, “I just didn’t feel very well today. It was nothing in particular, but my legs felt tired and I couldn’t psych myself up. I really haven’t felt up to par since the NCAA so I’m grateful I was good enough to win.” In the biggest meets this spring, Fosbury has proven he can win with his flop and then some.

How did he create the “flop”? Well, if you’ll pardon the expression, it was as easy as lying down. After learning to high jump in junior high school, Fosbury reached high school and found himself still struggling to clear 5-4 with the old scissors style. He then reasoned that he might do better by lowering the center of gravity by laying out on his back The first time he tried this wrinkle in a meet, he went from 5-4 to 5-10. He had found his style.

Simply speaking, the flop is the reverse of the straddle. Fosbury starts his approach run straight into the bar but then gradually swings to the left until he approaches the bar as a straddle jumper does. Any similarity between the two styles ends there.

“I take off on my right, or outside, foot rather than my left foot,” Fosbury explained. “Then I turn my back to the bar, arch my back over the bar and then kick my legs out to clear the bar.” He lands on his shoulders and head and usually does a somersault out of the pit to end up on his feet

“It’s really simpler than the straddle,” he continued. “There are less moves near the bar and you expose only the width of your body rather than the length so the chances of hitting the bar are much less.” Even Fosbury is intrigued by his creation, though, for he added, “Sometimes I see movies and I really wonder how I do it. But I never could get the roll and I’m not going to switch now.”

By his senior year at Medford, Oregon, High School, Dick was up to 6-7 and he unveiled his style nationwide by winning the National Junior Championships. When he ventured to Oregon State, coach Berny Wagner asked him to try the roll. “I just never had the coordination jumping from the opposite side,” Fosbury recalls. “Besides, the roll is so complicated, there are so many things to think about during the jump.” He agreed to try, though, and for six months experimented with the conventional style. No luck. He was a born “flopper” so it was back to his favorite style.

As a sophomore, he upped his best to 6-10 and placed 5th in the NCAA outdoor meet, a disappointing performance to the young innovator who had aspirations of 7-feet. Then came the indoor season and high jumping’s revolution began. In his first meet, Fosbury jumped 6-10.

Then at the Athens Invitational in Oakland, Dick flopped into the national and world picture as he sailed over 7-feet on his second try at that height. He nearly leapt that high as he bounded out of the pit, hands to his head, a broad grin signaling his elation. He had finally proved his style could carry him over that magic mark.

“Whenever any athlete breaks the barrier of his event, whether it is a 4-minute mile or 7-foot high jump, he feels pretty emotional,” Fosbury explained. “I never thought of myself going that high so when I finally did, it was the greatest moment of my career. He went on to clear that magic height in the next five consecutive meets, getting his best of 7-1 at Louisville and collecting the indoor college title with his final 7-footer. He didn’t compete in the AAU due to an armed services draft physical, delayed to then because of an injury suffered in high school.

“When I jumped in high school, none of the schools could afford foam rubber landing pits,” he explained, “so I would have to jump into sawdust pits. Landing on my neck and back so much compressed two vertebra in my back.”

Even the propect of a sore back hasn’t kept athletes from trying the flop. More and more athletes are taking a fling at the style, some with surprising results. One Oregon high schooler’s story is similar to Fosbury’s in that he couldn’t clear 5-9 by rolling but topped 6-4 in the first meet in which he flopped. Bill Elliott of Texas went one better. A 6-2 conventional jumper, he cleared 6-6 with the flop. A St. John’s jumper, only 5-7 tall who has cleared 6-8 with the straddle, has made 6-1 with the flop and a teammate, a pole vaulter who never cleared better than 5-7 with the roll, has done 5-10. Fosbury’s own Oregon State teammates also have had some success with the style. Steve Kelly and John Radetich (both 7-0 with the roll) have cleared 6-4 while Jeff Kolberg, a 6-3 conventional jumper, also has made 6-4. Many other athletes have reportedly tried the method.

“Only a few kinds of jumpers can use the style effectively,” Fosbury commented. “By the time a jumper is in college he has his style down pretty pat and just works on strength so he won’t make as great a change as this in his style. I’m amazed, too, that so many people have picked up the style just visually after seeing it in pictures or on television.”

“One thing I can say for sure,” Berny Wagner added, “After working on the flop, when the straddle jumpers return to their regular style, they have less tendency to lean into the bar and seem to do as well, or better, in the straddle even though they have been practicing something so different. Also, Dick doesn’t get any lead-leg kick at all and how he manages 7-feet without the supposedly vital lead-leg kick opens some intriguing new areas of thought in the high jump.”

Fosbury’s success with his intriguing style makes consideration of an Olympic team berth this year almost inevitable, but he isn’t quick to declare his intentions “You have to be a certain caliber of athlete,” he ventured. “I figured last year I would just go to the Olympic Trials for the experience but now that I have made 7-feet and higher, I can’t help but think about the Olympics. To compete in the Olympics would be the fulfillment of a dream. I’ve always had, but it’s not as easy as that. Once you say you will try for the Olympics, then everybody assumes you’ll make it. If you don’t, then people wonder why you said anything in the first place. So it’s a relative thing.

If the Olympics are the high-point of a career, does Fosbury think his style has a limit? “I think my only limit now is physical,” he said. “If someone has his style down perfectly, whether it is the roll, flop or whatever, then the only barrier should be his strength. I feel that I am consistent on every jump now, so the only thing holding me back is my physical strength.” It’s hard to believe that anything could hold Dick Fosbury back, for nothing has held him down.

Richard Douglas Fosbury was born March 6, 1947, in Portland, Oregon A civil engineering major at Oregon State, he stands 6-4, weighs 183lbs and has brown hair and eyes. Progression:

Year Age Grade HJ
1958 11 5th 3-10
1959 12 6th 4-6
1960 13 7th 4-8
1961 14 8th 4-10
1962 15 9th 5-4
1963 16 10th 5-10
1964 17 11th 6-3½
1965 18 12th 6-7
1966 19 frosh 6-7½
1967 20 soph 6-10¾
1968 21 junior 7-2¼