By Mike Smith
Photos By Jeff Johnson
How many athletes have a signature move named after them? Not many. Scope down into the sport of track and field and that number gets smaller. It might even be one. And if it is, that move is named after Dick Fosbury.
Never heard of him? That might be true but if you follow track and field, and specifically high jump you’ll recognize the move. It’s been named the Fosbury Flop and it’s the act of jumping over the high jump bar leading with your head and shoulders but with your back to the bar. While not the first person to try this style of jumping, Fosbury certainly was the person that made it popular, first winning the NCAA championships in 1967, then winning the Olympics in 1968, setting the Olympic and American record.
Fosbury was born in 1947 and began high jumping in high school in the state of Oregon. Having trouble with the straddle technique, Fosbury experimented with different styles of jumps, settling on the head first backwards technique we are all familiar with today.
Prior to Fosbury making jumping the bar backwards the go to move, other styles of jumps were mainstream. Some athletes would use the scissor kick method, running up alongside the bar and jumping up and scissor kick one leg and then the other over the bar. The Western roll, where an athlete would run alongside the bar and dive off one leg leading with the nearest arm then rolling their body over the bar at the apex of the dive, kind of in a Matrix style avoidance of the bar was another of the favored techniques. Another highly utilized jump style was the straddle where the athlete would jump up at the bar, hurdle style, then rotate over the bar by leaning forward and drawing the other leg over during the descent. But these jumps had their limits.
Fosbury and the flop came along at a time where high jumping went from landing in piles of sand and sawdust to the foam mats we see in use today. In my limited high school high jump experience, where I first and last tried high jump, I remember landing in/on a pile of sand, filling my uniform with it, with a dull thud, recognizing the technique I was using was not suitable for the surface I was landing on.
While I tend to be known for our distance program, I have coached a State Champion in the high jump so I have learned a thing or two about it and Fosbury’s signature move. Perfecting his backward leading approach while at Oregon State, it is the main technique used today and both the men’s and women’s World records have come using the Fosbury Flop. The real benefit comes from the fact that by using the Flop technique, your center mass is never over the bar, meaning, in a sense, the opportunity to jump higher.
According to his agent, Dick Fosbury died this past Sunday at the age of 76. While he passes on, his legacy in the sport, and the impact that his signature move has made on the sport, will live on indefinitely as will his love of the sport. We may not remember the humble man by name, but we certainly know what he has meant to the sport. Farewell, Mr. Fosbury.