Fosbury, Richard Douglas ("Dick")

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FOSBURY, Richard Douglas ("Dick")

(b. 6 March 1947 in Portland, Oregon), high jumper who revolutionized the sport by inventing a new method of clearing the bar, known today as the "Fosbury Flop" and used by high jumpers around the world.

Fosbury never set out to invent a new method of high jumping. Until high school he used a traditional move called the "scissors," in which the jumper makes a curved approach to the bar, leaps over it sideways with the legs scissoring around it, and lands on the back and shoulders. Fosbury was tall and lanky, so he kept knocking off the bar. Another move, the straddle, or "belly roll," also defeated him.

At a meet in May 1963 at Grants Pass, Oregon, Fosbury changed his technique. Each time the bar was raised he lifted his hips a little higher, which made his shoulders drop back. He said, "My mind wanted me to get over the bar, and intuitively, it figured out what was the most efficient way." Technically, Fosbury's style was a modification of the scissor jump, whereby the jumper makes a curved approach to the bar. However, instead of leaping sideways and legs first over the bar, Fosbury arched backwards over the bar, leading with his head and shoulders and slipping his legs and feet over last. He named the move the "Fosbury Flop" after reading a local newspaper headline that read "Fosbury Flops over the Bar."

At Oregon State University, where his jumping skill earned him a full scholarship, Coach Berny Wagner discouraged him from using the flop and urged him to use the traditional form. After a year without success he returned to his own move and broke the school record with a six-foot-ten-inch jump. Fosbury developed the jump so well that he won back-to-back National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships during his college career. At the 1968 Olympic trials he was almost eliminated but then cleared a personal record height of seven feet, two inches on his first attempt.

The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City took place during the summer between Fosbury's junior and senior years at college. By the end of the first day of competition he had cleared every height on his first attempt. The 80,000 spectators were so fascinated by Fosbury's unusual technique that when the marathon leader entered the stadium for the final lap of his 26.2-mile race, he was hardly noticed. Fosbury proved the worth of his technique by setting an Olympic and American record of seven feet, four and a quarter inches and by winning the gold medal.

Some track and field observers were initially dismayed by the new technique. U.S. Olympic coach Payton Jordan said, "Kids imitate champions. If they try to imitate Fosbury, he will wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks." Although jumpers may appear to land on their necks, they actually land on their shoulders. The development and use of Fosbury's move was aided by the introduction of softer landing materials; instead of landing on sand, jumpers started landing on padded mats, which were introduced during Fosbury's career.

Fosbury said, "The problem with something revolutionary is that most of the elite athletes had invested so much time in their technique and movements that they didn't want to give it up, so they stuck with what they knew." It would be ten years before the majority of jumpers used Fosbury's technique. The first athletes to pick it up were, not surprisingly, the youngest ones.

As a result of his startling Olympic win, Fosbury received a huge amount of attention. He was interviewed on popular television shows, taught celebrities how to do the flop, and met presidents and kings. The attention was overwhelming, and Fosbury found it difficult to deal with. "You get out of control," he said, looking back. "You're put on a pedestal, and the public reaction is either overdone, or they tear you down. When you step down from that podium, they don't let you become human."

Fosbury's reaction was to live quietly and to drop out of competition for a while to give himself time to collect his thoughts. Although he did not make the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, many of the world's leading high jumpers used his technique that year at the Munich Olympic Games. Fosbury has maintained his lanky physique and is only ten pounds over his college weight. He has remained fit by hiking, in-line skating with his teenage son, mountain biking, and snowboarding. In 1973 he competed in the short-lived International Track Association professional circuit.

Fosbury now works as a city engineer in Ketchum, Idaho, and is co-owner of an engineering firm. He holds high jump clinics each summer at a track camp for young athletes.

In 1998 Fosbury competed at the World Masters competition in Eugene, Oregon, and won the bronze medal. He was pleased to be involved because he believes in the value of exercise and would like to be a role model of healthy living for his age group. He was elected to the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1992.

Roy Blount, Jr., "Being Backwards Gets Results," Sports Illustrated (10 Feb. 1969), provides a lengthy article on Fosbury's life and accomplishments up to that date. The Lincoln Library of Sports Champions, vol. 5 (1993), includes a detailed chapter on Fosbury. For details of his performance at the World Masters Games, see Kerry Eggers, "Fosbury Will Compete with No Fear of Flop," Oregonian (12 Aug. 1998). In an interview in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (13 Feb. 1999), Fosbury describes how he came up with his innovative jumping technique.

Kelly Winters