Dick Fosbury: 1947–2023
On 12th March 2023 Dick Fosbury, the athlete who developed the ‘Fosbury Flop’, died six days after his 76th birthday. His biographer Bob Welch remembers a laid-back rebel
12th March 2023 (Taken from: #50)
“Tell me one person in any sport who did what Dick Fosbury did to his event,” challenges Bob Welch, biographer of the Olympic gold-winning high jumper who invented the Fosbury Flop. “There’s nobody. Other sports have seen modifications, but they were gradual – an evolution over many years, many different people. The Fosbury Flop was literally one moment in time 60 years ago that changed everything. He was like the Wright brothers. Soon the entire world would be trying to model itself after him.”
Before Fosbury, high jumpers would clear the bar by either using the ‘scissors’ technique, essentially hurdling it; the ‘roll’, in which they executed a half-turn of the body to cross the bar side on; or a ‘straddle’, which saw them cross the bar face down. Fosbury instead jumped with his back to the bar, arching himself over it. “He literally turned his back on everything that went before,” says Welch.
When Fosbury flopped to gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico it was the beginning of the end for the other techniques – by the 1972 Olympics, 28 of the 40 jumpers were “flopping” and since those Games there hasn’t been a gold medal won by any other method. But Fosbury’s seismic leap very nearly didn’t happen. “There were half a dozen reasons why he never should have been on the podium at Mexico City,” says Welch. Chief among them was that for many years Fosbury wasn’t actually very good at jumping. “As a kid he was the worst jumper on the Medford High School team,” says Welch with a laugh. “In fact, he was probably the worst high jumper in the state.” While Fosbury’s technique at the time may have been lacking, however, what he did have was determination.
“To understand Dick you really need to understand Medford, Oregon, where he grew up,” says Welch. “It was a fairly small town and all the focus was centred on high school sports. If you wanted to belong as a kid, you had to be an athlete.” And tragedy meant that Fosbury really wanted to belong. “When he was 14 and his brother was ten, they were riding their bicycles together and his brother was hit by a drunk driver and killed,” says Welch. “In the subsequent months, his parents split up. So, by the time he was a sophomore at 16 at Medford High, he had extra reason to feel isolated, to feel alone, to not feel a part of anything. He tried [American] football – a guy shattered his helmet and knocked out a couple of his teeth. He was too uncoordinated to play basketball, so track and field was the only place where he had a smidgen of a chance to belong. And the only way that he could stay on the team was if he found a way to jump higher.”
On 20th April 1963, at the Rotary Club Invitational high school athletics tournament in Grass Pass, Oregon, Fosbury found a way. “Instead of doing the regular scissors kick, he started to lean back,” says Welch. “He went from jumping five foot four to five foot ten [1.65m to 1.78m].” It was the start of the flop which Fosbury would develop over the coming years. “I think he subconsciously invented this style to stay on that team,” says Welch. When Welch first met Fosbury in 1988 to profile him for Sports Illustrated he got to discuss his theory that wanting to belong drove Fosbury to invent the flop. “He said it was all subliminal,” says Welch. “He was not thinking, ‘Oh, I need to jump higher because I’m really a wounded kid and I need to find a place where I feel like I belong’ but looking back, he said, ‘Bingo. That’s what it was all about’”.
Everybody said it was a bad idea… His own coach hated it. You had doctors saying that he’d break his back”
While his new technique meant he was good enough for the varsity team, it also put him in the centre of controversy. “Everybody said it was a bad idea, even when he got good,” says Welch. “At that Grass Pass event opposing coaches came up to the officials and said, ‘I don’t know the exact rule, but I’m pretty sure that this is an illegal jump’, which it wasn’t. His own coach hated it. You had doctors saying that he’d break his back. Even after high school when he’d set the school record and won an athletics scholarship to Oregon State, the first thing that the Oregon State coach Bernie Wagner did was try to deprogramme him. He wanted to get him to do things the way they are supposed to be done.” For Fosbury, though, there was no going back. “Dick was really laid back but also stubborn,” says Welch. “He wasn’t a total rebel, but he had an individual streak and the determination to follow it through.”
That determination would be tested again in 1967 when Fosbury arrived at the US team’s Echo Summit camp, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains, for pre-Olympic training. Prior to the camp the US Olympic committee had said that athletes that had won a major competition would make the team. Having won just such an event in Los Angeles, Fosbury’s place seemed assured. However, when Fosbury arrived at Echo Summit there was a note pinned to the cafeteria door saying the rules had been changed. Four high jumpers would now compete at Echo Summit for the three spots on the squad. At first it did not go well for Fosbury. Until the very last jump of the competition he trailed John Hartfield and looked set to miss out on the Olympics. On this last jump, the bar was raised to 2.2 m (7ft 2in), a height Fosbury had never cleared, but, undertrained, and at an altitude of 7,300 feet, Fosbury cleared it, pipping Hartfield to third place. Mexico and destiny awaited. “For me what he achieved in Echo Summit surpassed even what he would go on to do at the Olympics,” says Welch, who returned to Echo Summit with Fosbury while the two worked together on the 2018 biography The Wizard of Foz.
Fosbury’s time in Mexico was far from glamorous. “He was sleeping in the laundry room of a little apartment which he was sharing with 16 guys,” says Welch. “It was not a good situation for preparation for an Olympics.” Despite this Fosbury set a new Olympic record of 2.24m (7 feet 3 inches), maintaining his laidback approach throughout. “He missed both the opening and closing ceremonies because he was partying,” says Welch. “During the opening ceremony he, a buddy and some swimmers were in a VW bus. They’d found a little community the night before where the torch was going to come through and they underestimated the amount of traffic coming back to Mexico City the next day. Then after the Olympics, he was so tired of the press that he went up to the mountains and partied.”
Between the parties and the plaudits, Fosbury had a moment of enlightenment. “One of the most meaningful experiences [he had] was on a rainy practice day when they couldn’t jump,” says Welch. “He wound up having conversations with the Russian jumpers through an interpreter. He would come to call that experience ‘Olympism’ – the idea that sports could bring people together and break down barriers. And he really enjoyed being part of that.”
Alongside Fosbury’s arched back, another defining image of Mexico 1968 was of 200 metres medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium. Smith and Carlos were largely pilloried in the US press for making what many took to be a black power salute, but when Fosbury was asked his opinion back in Medford he stood by the athletes. “He said, ‘I admire Smith and Carlos, the courage it took to do what they did’,” says Welch. “Medford at the time was a very racist place, but Fosbury was always defying the status quo.”
Perhaps Fosbury’s most surprising move was what he did next, retiring from athletics and the spotlight. “He was a star when he got back to Oregon,” says Welch. “They gave him a parade in Medford, he was on the The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he was on the Dating Game, he got invited to parties with celebrities but what he wanted was to be a civil engineer.” Fosbury had flunked out of Oregon State University while training for Mexico, but the engineering school gave him a chance to come back if he cut out distractions like high jumping. Having failed to qualify for the 1972 Olympics he agreed. “He got his degree. He moved to Idaho and became a civil engineer and had a happy life,” says Welch.
Fosbury continued his civil and human rights work and, as with the flop, the world largely came around to his way of thinking. “In the end, I think he laughed last. He stood up for the right things and he died a happy man,” says Welch. “Fosbury was the quintessential example of the ‘do your own thing’ thinking of the 1960s. The conservative establishment was trying to stop this new generation – they were growing their hair long, listening to the Beatles and jumping over the bar backwards. [The establishment was] saying ‘that’s not the way we do it’ and Fosbury basically said to the world ‘it is now’.”
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