As a kid, American Richard Douglas Fosbury developed a keen liking to sports from his early childhood. Despite being one of the tallest kids in school, his attempt at playing basketball saw no success. Failing to make it to the football team, Fosbury tried his hands at athletics, finding a discipline – high jump, where he was least useless. Years later, he would go on to perfect an astonishing technique that would revolutionize high jump forever with the legendary “Fosbury Flop”.
Richard Fosbury, known to the world as Dick Fosbury, likes to tell a story about his college days: “Someone bet me I couldn’t clear a stuffed leather chair,” he says. “Not only did I lose the bet, I also broke my hand in the crash landing.” When he was new to high jump, he tried the age old upright scissors technique, where a jumper runs upright towards the bar, facing forward, and lifts his straight legs one after another over the bar. Another popular technique was the Western Roll, where an athlete would fling himself over the bar facing down. There was no rule regarding how a competitor crosses the bar, as long as he goes over it. Fosbury’s scientific eyes found this tiny loophole to exploit, which turned out to earn a legendary status over the years.
Dick Fosbury was a hopeless high-jumper in his college days. His best effort using the western roll was a mere 1.63m, more than 60 cm short of the then world record and a height that would fail to impress anyone even in the first half of 20th Century. Fosbury says –
“In the very next meet, as I was attempting a new personal best, I felt I had to do something different to clear the bar and I tried lifting my hips, which caused my shoulders to go back, and I succeeded. I made a new height, I tried again, and successively I was able to clear six inches higher than my previous best, and that change made me competitive, it kept me in the game, and I converted from sitting on the bar to laying flat on my back.”
Fosbury Flop at the Olympics
This was the turning point that was about to change the world of high jumping in a few years. Fosbury’s jump was all about going over the bar backwards. He jumped with his back facing the bar, head-first, curving his body over the bar and kicking his legs up in the air at the end of the jump. He perfected landing on his back with practice, and was allowed to use the ‘flop’ in the college freshman meets. On February 1968, he was on the cover of Track and Field News’ monthly issue. The stage was all set for him at the greatest show on earth, having cleared US Olympic Trials.
Having never competed outside his homeland, he arrived in Mexico in the month of October. It was the first time in Mexico in 1968 that the world witnessed a backward high-jump from a man who eventually went on to clinch the gold, breaking the national record. Fosbury cleared the bar every time on his first attempt, except the last, which took him three attempts at 2.24m. His rival, Ed Caruthers, had three failed attempts at 2.24m. Having bagged the gold along with an American record, Fosbury asked the bar to be raised to 2.29 m, hoping to break Valeriy Brumel’s 5-year-old world record of 2.28m. None of his attempts at 2.29 m came close to clearing. Despite initial skepticism, his innovation gained quick acceptance.
Physics behind Fosbury Flop
Analysis of the ‘Fosbury Flop’ proved its stance about why it is the best high-jump technique that was ever invented. In the ‘Fosbury Flop’, since the bar is cleared head-first, with the body curved like an arc, the effective center of mass of the body actually lies outside. The jumper need not lift his center of mass over the bar in order to clear it, as long as he kicks his legs out at the right moment.
This is the quintessential improvement the ‘flop’ relies on, compared to the previous technique which required a jumper to lift his center of mass above the bar. This implied that a jumper with a potential to lift his center of mass to a particular height, would have even higher jumps using the Fosbury Flop.
Four years later, 28 out of the 40 competitors used Fosbury’s technique at the Munich Olympics. Of the 36 Olympic medalists in the event from 1972 to 2000, 34 used the Fosbury Flop. It is regarded as the most successful and popular technique in modern high jumping.