When It's Good to Have a Flop
I've wanted to post this story for years but could never find the right video. This comes close. I thought of posting it during the Olympics, but ultimately felt it best to just write about the games at hand -- and this is from the Mexico City in 1968. It's a wonderful tale, even if you don't like sports, because it's more about one guy and how he changed a sport despite initial ridicule. And stick around to the end since there's a bit of a bonus twist ending.
When we watch the high jump, we see the athletes jump high, twist their body and throw their back over the bar. That's just that way it's done.
Except it's not how it was done. For decades, high jumpers leaped up and threw their just over the bar, straddling it. Hence it being called The Straddle. That's how all the high jumpers in the world did it. Jumping forward -- not...backwards.
But now they jump backwards. Upside-down. Flopping over the bar. That's why it's called the Fosbury Flop.
Though in full, it's called the Fosbury Flop because of the man who invented it and was the first to risk the ridicule of the track & field world, Dick Fosbury.
The video goes into his engineering background as being part of how he came up with flopping. My recollection at the time wasn't just that he used science to come up with the new way of jumping, but that necessity actually was the mother of invention here -- that Fosbury had had an injury and wasn't able to jump well over the bar like everyone else, so he had to develop a new way to jump. I hadn’t been able to confirm my distant memory from when I was a kid, but finally did find an article which said – “Fosbury did, however, compress a couple of vertebrae in the mid-1960s because not all high schools felt they could afford the new foam material. Fosbury recovered from this injury.”
The best I can tell is that is seems his new style began to develop a year or so earlier in high school, using an adapted “scissors-kick” style (which he had to do because he found that he simply couldn’t jump as high as the others, "I was probably the worst in the state of Oregon") and that the injury was caused by landing on wood chips that some schools still used in the pit. He then refined his new style until it became dubbed the Fosbury Flop.
What also stands out is that pretty much no one around the rest of the world knew about Dick Fosbury and his flop. He wasn’t a world class high jumper, just a good college athlete who was getting better. But in track meets around the U.S., his technique was getting noticed. In part because they thought he was crazy, in part because it was so remarkable. And I remember first seeing it at the U.S. track & field trials before the 1968 Games. And as a kid, I was bowled over by how fun and goofy it looked – and at how successful Dick Fosbury was.
And so I couldn’t wait for Mexico City. Not only because I was anxious to see him jump more – but also because I knew that few people in the stadium, let alone around the rest of the world, had ever seen anything like it and didn’t have a clue what they were in for.
And that’s the only thing that’s significantly missing from this video, good as it otherwise is at telling the story. And missing from all other videos of Dick Fosbury at the Mexico City Olympics. What’s missing is…the sound.
To be clear, a lot of videos do have sound, but it's clearly dubbed. Not the real thing. The real thing was very special.
That sound is still a visceral memory to me. And a big part of the magic of the moment. Watching in anticipation as Dick Fosbury was about to make his first high jump, knowing what’s coming, knowing the people in the stands didn’t know and then him jumping, twisting and for the first time ever in the Olympics…going over backwards – and the people watching this in the stadium ROARED. It was partial laughter, partial admiration because he did go over the bar.
And what was just as memorable was that with each successive jump, more and more people in the stadium caught on that something weird and funny and special and impressive was going on at the high jump pit and the ROARS grew louder each time. And the laughter grew less. And it became cheering by the end as it seemed like all 80,000 people in the stands by now (or however many there were) were all watching. And going wild at the end as this totally unknown Dick Fosbury kept flopping over the bar until he won the Gold medal. And set a new Olympic and United States record at 7 ft-4¼ inches.
How much did it change the track-and-field world? At the Olympics four years later, already 28 of the 40 competitors were using the Fosbury Flop, including 13 of the 16 finalists. And it built from there. Today, it is the standard. Every Olympic high jump champion after 1972 has won the Gold medal using the Fosbury Flop. Every high jumper in the just-finished Tokyo Olympics used the Fosbury Flop.
So, here then is the video. It tells the story very well. It just leaves out the injury and – unfortunately – The Sound. But do your best to imagine it, the stunned, bewildered, overjoyed, laughing, cheering, roaring sound. Growing with each jump. I’ll keep looking for a video that has it, and hopefully one day will find it – like I eventually found this one -- but until then, this is a very good video and does Dick Fosbury proud.
Okay, so I said I'd keep looking. And in fact, I even took one last look before I posted this. And I sort of, kind of found video of Dick Fosbury jumping at the 1968 Olympics with sound. It's not much, so you don't get the full experience, and the entire video is only 48-seconds -- but at around the 24-second mark, there is about five seconds of footage...with sound!! But what helps beyond even hearing this quick burst of cheering is that you can see the faces of the crowd watching him in total awe and wonderment, leaping to their feet. And then there's Dick Fosbury himself years later talking about it and the roars of the crowd.
And I'll keep looking, especially since I now know the footage with sound is out there.
NOTE: Initially, I embedded the video below, but it appears to play immediately and also on either a repeating loop or non-stop leading into other footage. So, it's a bit distracting. So, instead of embedding it, you can watch it here.
But I'll also throw in a bonus.
This is a very nice 5-minute feature on Dick Fosbury with the good fellow today looking back on how he developed the Fosbury Flop and self-effacingly talking about that day in Mexico in 1968, mixed with video and photos. And happily, his memories of it all match mine.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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