Often, an innovation comes along when one door closes, and another opens. For Dick Fosbury, it was a figurative flop during Medford high school football tryouts that led to his famous Fosbury Flop.
It ought to have arrived from a coach, a kinesiology professor, maybe even a biomechanist, but it was a Medford, Oregon teenager of middling jumping ability who revolutionized high jumping.
High jumping is a calling
Before the 1968 Olympics, the two prevalent methods of jumping, were the straddle and scissor jumps. The most popular, the straddle jump, consisted of approaching the mat with the inside foot and traversing the bar face down in a straddle position. The scissor technique required a slower approach and bringing the outer leg over the bar first, enabling the athlete to land feet first.
But Fosbury, who couldn’t make his high school football team, had grown tired of being told how to get over a stubborn four-foot barrier. He felt that he could clear it—if only there were some way to get his body over the bar instead of merely under it.
“Fosbury was remarkable in being unremarkable, the essence of average,” author Bob Welch wrote in the biography “ The Wizard of Foz.” “He wasn’t a great athlete; he wasn’t a bad athlete. He wasn’t a great student; he wasn’t a bad student. He wasn’t a hellion; he wasn’t an angel.”
Athletically limited by the current techniques, he found with overwhelming success if he simply stretched out on his back and landed shoulder first, he could outperform anyone at his high school.
“The advantage, from a physics standpoint, is, it allows the jumper to run at the bar with more speed and, with the arch in your back, you could actually clear the bar and keep your center of gravity at or below the bar, so it was much more efficient.”Dick Fosbury
The physics of the Fosbury Flop technique
Biomechanics is the innovative application of physics to movement. And the genius of the Fosbury Flop is that the athletes contort their back around the bar at the peak.
Once airborne, athletes progressively coax shoulders, back, and legs through a rolling motion. Leaving their hips to clear the bar while simultaneously their trailing center of mass travels beneath the bar.
Back on earth, though, athletes first run straight forward, building speed, then follow a curve towards the bar. The curve’s depth helps the athlete reach the proper take-off position with as much angular momentum as they can handle.
This is the moment when high jumpers commit to the jump. They plant one foot with extraordinary ground reaction forces endured by the take-off foot.
Back now to the mat, there is less chance that arms or legs will hit the bar and knock it down. But excellent proprioception to “feel” the bar’s presence when it cannot be visibly discerned.
The sheer speed of liftoff helps raise the center of the athlete’s mass. In contrast, the back turn helps rotate the body into an athletic position to clear the bar. And land victoriously on the landing mat.
One of the most celebrated inventions in track and field history, the eponymous Fosbury Flop, was born from a high school junior’s athletic frustrations. At the time, a revolutionary way to high jump; it has been the dominant way to clear a bar ever since.
And in an Olympiad, everything changed
Fosbury went on to win the high jump gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, setting an Olympic Record along the way. And popularized by his unprecedented success, the Fosbury Flop quickly became the dominant style of high jumping.
By the early 1970s had almost completely replaced all other techniques. In large part because landing surfaces had previously been sandpits or low piles of matting. And the addition of deep foam matting gave less adventurous high jumpers more stylistic landing opportunities (injury reduction) and experiment with new jumping styles (approach speeds).
His revolutionary technique struck gold in Mexico in 1968. Still, four years later, Dick Fosbury was out of the sport and on his professional path.
Leadership from innovation
“Let’s go see what happens.” Winning the gold medal in 1968 changed his life, Fosbury says.
And even raised my fist in solidarity with Tommie [Smith] and John [Carlos] and the other athletes with the Olympic Movement for Human Rights. It was intentional that I felt united with athletes trying to demonstrate and give hope to people who don’t have the same rights that we did.Dick Fosbury to NPR
These feelings and attitudes didn’t end when he returned from his Olympic experience. Fosbury felt a new responsibility, an expectation of leadership on a controversial issue. As with his innovative style, he did and has continued to do so ever since.