'Fosbury Flop' Remains a Lesson in Innovation

Dick Fosbury changed high jumpers' technique
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 13, 2023 7:15 PM CDT
'Fosbury Flop' Remains a Lesson in Innovation
Dick Fosbury greets fans while carrying the torch to kick off the Commonwealth Games at the Vines Center in 2016 in Lynchburg, Va.   (Jay Westcott/The News & Advance via AP, File)

Dick Fosbury, the lanky leaper who revamped the technical discipline of high jump and won an Olympic gold medal with his "Fosbury Flop," has died. He was 76. Fosbury died Sunday, the AP reports, after a recurrence with lymphoma, his publicist said. Before Fosbury, many high jumpers cleared their heights by running parallel to the bar, then using a straddle kick to leap over before landing with their faces pointed downward. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Fosbury took off at an angle, leaped backward, bent himself into a "J" shape to catapult his 6-foot-4 frame over the bar, then crashed headfirst into the landing pit.

It was a convention-defying move, and with the world watching, Fosbury cleared 2.24 meters—7 feet, 4¼ inches—to win the gold and set an Olympic record. By the next Olympics, 28 of the 40 jumpers were using Fosbury's technique. The Montreal Games in 1976 marked the last Olympics in which a high jumper won using a technique other than the Fosbury Flop. "Dick Fosbury was a true legend!" sprint great Michael Johnson tweeted. "He changed an entire event forever with a technique that looked crazy at the time but the result made it the standard." Over time, Fosbury's move became about more than simply high jumping. It is often used by business leaders and university professors as a study in innovation and willingness to take chances and break the mold.

“It’s literally genius," said 2012 Olympic high jump champion Erik Kynard Jr. "And it takes huge courage, obviously." Fosbury started tinkering with a new technique in the early 1960s as a high school athlete in Oregon. Among his discoveries was a need to move his takeoff point farther back for higher jumps, so he could change the apex of the parabola shape of his jump to clear the bar. Most jumpers of the day planted a foot and took off from the same spot regardless of the height they were attempting. "I knew I had to change my body position, and that’s what started first the revolution, and over the next two years, the evolution," Fosbury said in 2014.

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The technique was the subject of ridicule. The term Fosbury Flop is credited to the Medford Mail-Tribune, which ran the headline "Fosbury Flops Over the Bar" after a high school meet. The reporter wrote that Fosbury looked like a fish flopping in a boat. Fosbury liked the term, saying: "It's poetic. It's alliterative. It's a conflict." Journalist Richard Hoffer wrote that Fosbury once received a letter from a medical director warning his technique would lead to broken necks. "For the good of young Americans, you should stop this ridiculous attack on the bar," the letter said. Innovation won out. Decades later, Fosbury's flop remains a hit, and his willingness to take a chance is still cited as a lesson to others. "He was as innovative as Henry Ford was to the Model T," Kynard said. "He's the creator of what we still do to this day."

(More obituary stories.)

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