For Leap Day, let us consider the most revolutionary jump in sports history.
“It all developed under stress,” the jump’s author, Dick Fosbury, told me a few years ago during an endorsement appearance in New York City. He was a high school sophomore in Medford, Ore., in 1963, a high jumper on the track team who had become so depressed over his lack of improvement in the event that he begged his coach’s permission to abandon the traditional foot-first “straddle” style.
During a national high school meet, Fosbury found himself “intuitively” curve his approach to the bar, lead with his head, then “hunch over my shoulder and begin to rotate. I didn’t practice it. In practice, I’d be goofing around on the hurdles or watching the girls work out.”
Anyway, there obviously was no owner’s manual to consult.
“It was all in the meet,” said Fosbury, who will be 69 next week. “I was just trying to lift my butt up and, by the end of the day, I was upside down over the bar.” He finished fourth that day, clearing 5-feet-4, to the best of his recollection. “But I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to compete, to be in the game.”
He had no label for the style. “I was just trying to use the right technical terms,” he said, “so I called it a ‘back layout.’ But there was a photo in the Medford paper with the caption, ‘Fosbury Flops Over the Bar.’ So the next time somebody asked, I said, ‘Back home, they call it the ‘Fosbury Flop.’
“I like the name. I like the irony. The conflict. Is it good or is it bad? It happened because I couldn’t adapt to the old style. I failed. Then I just discovered a new way for me to be competitive.”
What leapfrogged his visually weird technique into international consciousness, while coaches roundly dismissed its possibilities, was Fosbury’s 1968 Olympic victory in Mexico City, when he hushed the crowds each time he Flopped toward the winning height of 7-4 ¼. Naturally, high jumpers around the world quickly began to mimic the Flop, so that within three Olympic cycles, only three of the 16 high jump finalists in the 1980 Moscow Games were not using the style.
Of the 10 men who have held the world record since 1968, nine—including current holder Javier Sotomayor of Cuba at 8 feet-0 ¼ inches—have employed the Flop. The one exception was Vladimir Yaschenko, a Ukrainian who competed for the old Soviet Union and reached his peak—7-8 ¼ —in 1978 with the soon-to-be obsolete straddle method. Even Pat Matzdorf, a straddler who held the world record at 7-6 ¼ shortly after Fosbury’s seismic 1968 Olympic triumph, switched to the Flop after failing to make the 1972 Olympic team.
Fosbury said he “never dreamed about going to the Olympics; that just became a natural event in the course of that year when I was jumping well.” Furthermore, he claimed no intellectual property for devising the Flop. He recalled how he spotted a young Canadian girl, when both were competing in the same all-star track meet after his senior year in high school, who was using essentially the same technique he had chanced upon two years earlier.
Her name was Debbie Brill—she later finished eighth in the ‘72 Olympics—with what briefly was called the Brill Bend. There was no way, Fosbury said, that she could have known beforehand about him or his Flop. And that only convinced him that “biomechanically, it is the most efficient way to jump high. It’s been studied to death and proven to be so.”
The physics of the thing even prompted a short-lived experiment in the early 1970s in the long jump, in which an athlete would do a somersault from the take-off board in search of greater length. That, of course, was christened The Flip, but was a genuine flop. It didn’t even make it to the next Leap Year.