Fosbury’s Flop Challenged Status Quo

During this Olympic season, we’ve had ample opportunity to focus on fast. But let’s not overlook vast. America succeeds because we bring together so many different kinds of excellence. New England’s Yankee know-how is matched by the Midwest’s can-do, which is then challenged by the Pacific Northwest’s why-not.

Like pregnant salmon swimming upstream to spawn and then die, we push against the flow of conventional wisdom. The Fosbury Flop couldn’t have come from a New Englander, and Olympic high jumpers wouldn’t be jumping as high without it.

Dick Fosbury was born in Portland. He went to high school in Medford. He was recruited for the Oregon State track team. No other school showed any interest in him. He won a gold medal in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. After a couple of years of national fame, he returned to OSU to complete his education as a civil engineer. He has lived and worked in Idaho ever since.

As a sophomore at Medford High School, Fosbury was tall, lanky — and frustrated. He struggled to pass over a bar that was five-and-a-half feet up. His coach told him to experiment a little, to “play around.” Fosbury found he did much better by using a technique that hadn’t been popular since the late 1800s, a variant of the scissor jump.

Fosbury went over the bar belly up for the first time in 1963. Five years later, he was the best in the world. He did it by following his intuition. In his words, “I didn’t change my style. It changed inside me.”

A Medford Mail-Tribune sportswriter called his unconventional style the “Fosbury flop.” Once Fosbury got to OSU, Coach Berny Wagner tried to teach him the conventional straddle, which looks like a midair crawl over an unsuspecting bar. The coach failed. Fosbury continued to flop.

When a TIME Magazine reporter in 1968 described his style as “the most preposterous high-jumping technique ever devised,” how did Fosbury respond? Simply. “I’ve studied physics and engineering.”

In 1973, Kenneth Lundmark proved Fosbury’s intuition correct with a UO masters thesis titled: “A comparative mechanical analysis of the Fosbury flop and straddle styles of high jumping.” Using stop-action photography, Lundmark demonstrated how accomplished floppers can pass over a high bar with their body’s center of gravity never ascending as high as the bar itself.

Humans are bi-laterally symmetrical. Side-to-side, we’re mostly the same, but the top half of a human body is very different from the bottom half.

High jumpers using the Fosbury flop cross the bar one section of their body at a time: head, shoulders, midsection, butt, thighs, legs, and feet. By flexing and stretching each body part as it passes over the bar, the high jumper can shift the center of gravity from moment to moment.

Fosbury richly deserves the fame he has received from such extreme innovation. But there’s a reason those 1880 jumpers didn’t alter their scissor jump style to include the twist that sends the body over backwards.

It wasn’t the jumping. It was the landing.

Once you fall on your back into a pile of sawdust, you don’t want to do it again. Medford High School had foam mats and most meets had expensive landing pits that function like airbags in a car. Jumpers since the 1960s have had more landing options. “Playing around” got safer.

But don’t let anyone, including Fosbury himself, tell you his style “evolved” from what had been the current conventional wisdom. Fosbury has himself called his approach: “the next logical step.” Mechanically, yes, that’s true. He is an engineer, after all. But from a practitioner’s view, not at all. Which “logical next step” is it? Straddle jumpers launch with their inside foot. Floppers launch with their outside foot.

You got only two choices. No halfway; no evolving. You plant a foot and launch. As they say in England, “you pays your money and takes your choice.”

Early next week, Oregon Track Club’s Jesse Williams will attempt to jump almost eight feet. He will launch with his outside foot, following in the step of one Oregonian who challenged conventional wisdom almost 50 years ago.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.