Dick Fosbury: Former Olympic high jumper

Vancouver, BC is really a small town.

I saw Debbie Brill training her group of high jumpers at our local track meet at Burnaby Central High School on Tuesday night. Talk about Flashbacks!

The only thing I remember about watching the 1972 Munich Games on my 13″ Black and White TV was Frank Shorter (marathon, and getting boo’ed as he entered the stadium), Dave Wottle (800m come from behind victory), and Debbie Brill (high jump). I still remember those ugly Canadian singlets provided to the athletes. Times has changed with corporate clothing sponsors.

I remember watching her unusual head first, “Brill Bend” technique back then. Everyone in my middle school was still using the straddle technique at the time. Heck, I was still using the “scissors” for HJ and “sail” for the long jump!

However, like the chicken and the egg, Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic Gold medalist in the mens high jump, was credited the first person to jump head first – reverse style – aka “Fosbury Flop”. We can argue forever on who “invented” this technique. But it doesn’t matter, as there aren’t any royalties to go with it, though Ms. Brill was awarded the Order of Canada.

In an era where in 1985 the Compact Disc (aka CDs) literally wiped out Vinyl LPs music industry forever, hardly anyone high jumps using the straddle technique since 1968.

POP QUIZ: What is the world record for high jump using a non-Fosbury, non-Brill-bend, style?

Here is a timeless article from ESPN Sportzone, February, 1998. Hard to believe it is almost 40 years since that winning jump.

Dick Fosbury: Former Olympic high jumper

ESPN SportsZone

At the Summer Games in 1968 at Mexico City, Dick Fosbury showed off his unusual high-jumping style to the world when he went over the bar with his back turned to it, landing on the base of his neck. Up to that point competitors had been using the straddle method where they would cross over the bar with their lead arm and leg, and then with their stomach facing the ground they would follow with the other arm and leg.

Fosbury shattered the previous Olympic record by clearing the bar at 7-4¼, and the “Fosbury Flop” became the standard. At the time, U.S. coach Payton Jordan jokingly commented, “Kids imitate champions. If they try to imitate Fosbury, he will wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they all will have broken necks.”

Instead, there are broken records. Fosbury, a man who has both made history and seen history, having lived through the terrorism of the 1972 Munich Games and the Cold War boycotts of 1980 and 1984, joined ESPN SportsZone chat users Sunday. Here is the transcript:

Dick Fosbury: I’m here. Any questions?

Fang: Hey, Mr. Fosbury, welcome. I remember the big deal about Mexico City was the altitude issue. So do you think the athletes that participate in more than one Olympics deserve particular recognition for the geographic challenges of different world cities?

Dick Fosbury: Interesting question. Track and field is an international sport where the athletes will go where there’s a track which could include those at sea level, at high altitude or hot or cold climates. It is certainly a consideration by the IOC in how they select each site. However, I think that the Olympic committee has tried to spread out the games to make it interesting and give other countries the opportunity to host it. I think it’s important to acknowledge athletes’ different performances in different conditions. I agree that the high altitude at Mexico City was an advantage in most events with the exception of endurance events. There has been talk about putting in an asterisk in high-altitude events, but I think generally the athletes accept those as unusual and accept the marks that people make.

NMU Wildcat: Mr. Fosbury, do you have any comments on this mornings tragedy at the Olympic park.

Dick Fosbury: I was surprised and disappointed when I heard the news. I was at the Park early in the week with my son and girl friend and could have been there last night! I feel that it was a cowardly act and only accomplished pain to the people there. The security was there but was in the background and not really present. All of the many volunteers in Atlanta have been wonderful and made our trip memorable. All I can say is that they will catch this guy and I pray the second week is peaceful.

Olympic Fan: How did you come up the idea of the “Fosbury Flop”?

Dick Fosbury: When I first learned to high jump at the age of 10 or 11, I tried jumping with the “scissors” style. I used that style until I went into high school in Medford Oregon, when my coach, Dean Benson explained that I would never get anywhere with that technique. He started me with the “belly roll” or straddle technique. However, I was really lousy with that style, so, toward the end of the year, I had only cleared 5′-4″ (the same as I had jumped with the scissors. I expressed my frustration to coach and he said that if I really wanted, I could still use the scissors. So, I decided on the bus trip to the next meet to go back to the scissors. During the competition, as the bar was raised 2″ each time, I began to lift my hips up and my shoulders went back in reaction to that. At the end of the competition, I had improved my best by 6″, from 5′-4″ to 5′-10″ and even placed third! The next two years in high school, with my curved approach, I began to lead with my shoulder and eventually was going over
head first like today’s Floppers.

NMU Wildcat: How long did you work on your “new” technique before using it in competition?

Dick Fosbury: The interesting thing was that the technique developed in competition and was a reaction to my trying to get over the bar. I never thought about how to change it, and I’m sure my coach was going crazy because it kept evolving. I believe that the flop was a NATURAL style and I was just the first to find it. I can say that because the Canadian jumper, Debbie Brill was a few years younger than I was and also developed the same technique, only a few years after me (and without ever having seen me).

Matt: Hi Dick. Here is my question. Have you ever gone by one day without thinking about the 1968 Olympic Games?

Dick Fosbury: Hey Matt: Of course, many days go by, but I know without a doubt that the Olympic experience has affected every day since then. It is really interesting to have this four year cycle happen when people call or write to talk about the ’68 Games.

Reagan White: Mr. Fosbury, do you foresee any major new innovations in the high jump (or perhaps in the techniques of other track & field events), or will yours be the last major brainstorm?

Dick Fosbury: I’ll be the last one to limit athletes from new innovations. With the Fosbury Flop, the jumpers have added a few improvements to the style. The first thing to add was the use of a better arm drive by the jumpers. I never raised my arms above my shoulders, blocking the upward arm swing. Nearly all the jumpers today use a single or two-arm drive above their head. The other addition was when the jumpers began to throw their head back to get a more extreme back arch. I turned my head to the side so I knew how to time my arch and un-arch, to kick my heels over the bar. Today’s jumpers have to have much better developed timing clearing the bar, which obviously they do!

As to any other innovations in track and field, I’ve always thought that rule changes would be more likely than technique changes. That’s partially because the athletes are analysed so thoroughly today by the biomechanical experts with the use of computer models. Rule changes might be such as measuring the actual height that the athlete clears rather than where the bar is set, like the other field events. Or, conversely, the other field events could be required to clear a line set at an increasing distance. That’s what is so interesting about sports!

Alworth: Mr. Fosbury – what type of things would you recommend to increase your vertical leap?

Dick Fosbury: Alworth: The exercises that the elite athletes use are based around increasing leg strength and speed. The typical strength exercises are developd from lifting weights and doing plyometric or bounding exercises. The athletes can get a lifting schedule from a coach, a trainer, or another athlete under the supervision of their coach. My basic advice is to first learn the proper movement with lighter weights first, before increasing the loading. There are several books available for coaches and athletes. The best two I use are on high jumping by Dwight Stones, and on jumping by Ed Jacoby, our national high jump coach. The plyometrics is a powerful training tool that helped me improve by 5-1/2″ from ’67 to ’68. Practicing high jumping is of course doing plyometrics as well.

Showtime: Dick, in high school, did you compete in other events besides the high jump? What was your highest height cleared in practice or competition? How would you compare the high jumpers of 1996 with those of 1968?

Dick Fosbury: In high school Track, I also ran the high hurdles. However, that was due to my coach being an excellent hurdler himself, and therefore an excellent coach. We always had tops-in-state hurdlers in Medford, Oregon. We also didn’t have many hurdlers, in fact only one other hudler, so I was there to fill out a lane in our dual meets. I was slow as molasses, too!

My best height in practice in the high jump was 7′-0″ at Mexico City just before the competition. In meets, my best clearance was 2.24M, or 7′-4 1/4″ for the gold medal. I was always better in competition.
The jumpers today seem to be much taller and more thin than in 1968. That is clearly due to the universal use of the Flop technique as opposed to the straddle technique. My predecessors, Valery Brumel(USSR) and John Thomas(USA) were more average build. I believe today’s athletes are better trained as well.

Minkus: How did your high school coaches react to your new way of jumping? Where you disciplined in any way because you didn’t jump how the coaches wanted you to?

Dick Fosbury: Minkus: My coaches were a little perplexed by my new style. My high school coach did the best he could, so the first thing we did when my style began to change was to view movies of high jump techniques to use as a guide. The only problem was that there was no other style from the 50’s or 60’s that resembled what I was doing very closely. So, he observed me and kept me on a training program to help me get stronger.

When I got to college at Oregon State University, my new coach, Berny Wagner was a good high jump coach and convinced me he could teach me to straddle. So I would practice the straddle during the week and Flop in the meets, until I could catch up using the straddle. Only problem was that I never caught up! My sophomore year, at the first spring meet I broke the school jumping 6′-10″. He surrendered and began to observe and film me so he could coach me as I needed. The best thing my coaches did was to train me and be there when I needed help. They never punished me for being different, just chewed on me when I was slacking off and deserved it.

Hello Mr.Fosbury, my question is how do you think the Olympics have changed over the years?

Dick Fosbury:
Mike@Indy: I think many changes have happened and will continue to do so. The most current topic is about the commercialism in the Games. From what I have read of the history of the Games, I understand that we have seen many cycles through the years. In 1968, Avery Brundage, President of the IOC was a rigid believer in amateur sports. I think the Olympics has the greatest potential to bring together people from many countries in a peaceful way, to compete and learn about each other.

Would you say that competing in the Olympics was the greatest achievement in your life?

Dick Fosbury:
Marc: It was undoubtedly my greatest athletic achievement! My other peak experience was the birth of my son, Erich.

Dick, how would a person train for the Olympics?

Dick Fosbury:
First of all, find a coach who loves the sport and will do the work to help you get there. Next, dedicate yourself to following a good training program as best you can. Read books and magazines about how to become a better athlete. Learn several sports to find the best one for you and so you have an alternative during the different seasons. Understand that it will take work to become the best, but you must PLAY sports. Good Luck!

It’s a thrill to be able to communicate with you!

I believe you are a true sports legend and pioneer. I competed in high school in track and field 20 years ago with a person I believe is the best American miler/1500 track burner in history. His name is Steve Scott.

Mr. Fosbury, I remember you, admire you, and would appreciate any comments you would have about the high jump, the state of track and field in general, and professionals in the Olympics. Thanks.

Dick Fosbury:
Kent: Thanks for the compliment! About the high jump, it continues to amaze me how much the athletes have improved. Sotomayer has been far better than the other jumpers for quite a while now. I’m a bit surprised that the Americans have not been more competitive, although I recognize that sports goes in cycles.

I was pleased that Kemp won the Worlds last year, upsetting Soto. He was trained by Ed Jacoby at Boise State here in Idaho. I think the American women will show some real improvements in the next few years.

Track and Field has been on the decline the last several years and I think the national organizations need to restructure or develope new programs to build fan interest in the US. It broke my heart when my alma mater dropped Track in ’89. We had a great tradition, but were at the mercy of an AD cutting budgets. I am trying to help raise money to start the program again with an endowment fund. I’ve got my hopes up!

Has the high jump reached its limit with the existing rules? Not many people jump past 2.40 nowadays.

Dick Fosbury:
You sound like one who would know! I’m a bit surprised that no one has kept up with Sotomayer. I think what he needs is someone to press him him a little. I also recognize the stress that jumping puts on the athletes body. I’m real concerned about the potential for injury at Atlanta. The track is hard and fast, but the Americans had many difficulties during the American Trials. Witness Jackie Joyner Kersee dropping out of the Pentathlon today due to her Trials injury.

I seriously doubt that we will see a new Olympic record because of the surface there. I have predicted in the past (1978) that I believe the peak in my lifetime would be about 2.50m, based on my experience and observations. So far I’m still watching.

The one:
Hello Mr. Fosbury, my question is… what do the Olympic Games represent to you?, and how’s this one different from the others?

Dick Fosbury:
The one: The Olympics represents a quasi physio-religios ceremony for the people. My experiences taught me the importance of the Games as a way to compete with each other in a peaceful way. When I was at the Games, our country was in a war in Vietnam, in social and cultural conflict with the older establishment, and in the Cold War against the communist regime. I had an incredible experience talking with other athletes and coaches, argueing about jumping techniques, sharing fears, hopes, and thoughts about life. I learned that we had much more in common than I had been taught to believe in school. I’ve always appreciated that lesson I had at an early age. The ceremony of the Games gave it much more significance as an experience.

This Games has been different to me since I was invited as a guest of Xerox as one of One Hundred Golden Olympians. This time I went as a spectator and had a wonderful time. Yes, it was hot and crowded at times, but those are situations we can deal with. I was saddened by the violence last night, but this type of event seems to attract attention by the fringe element. It should in no way detract from the efforts of the thousands of volunteers and the many organizations working to make an event happen. I just hope that peace will prevail and I look forward to watching the rest of the Games and then on to Sydney in 2000!

Do you feel if you hadn’t brainstormed this great idea any else would have thought of it?

Dick Fosbury:
Oscar: Yes! This was a “natural” technique that I was blessed to be the first to find. A young Canadian girl named Debbie Brill also developed the style a few years after me (she’s younger). She became national record holder and Commonwealth Games Champion with her technique. I never set out to change the world, I just wanted to play the game, and this was what I came up with to do it.

NMU Wildcat:
Who do you think will win the gold in the high jump.

Dick Fosbury:
NMU Wildcat: I predict that the medalists would be either Smith (GB), Hoen (Norway), with Sotomayer (Cuba) (because he’s hurt) and Austin (USA) an outside chance.

Do you think its right to use NBA players in the Olympics?

Dick Fosbury:
I’m disappointed that the NBA players make up our basketball team now. Either bring back the amateurs, or limit them to one year in the NBA, or drop basketball as an Olympic sport. It’s just not competitive to me.

Thanks for all your questions, I’m gonna sign off now and go watch the Games.

Respectfully yours,

Dick Fosbury.

Jimson Lee

Jimson Lee

Coach & Founder at SpeedEndurance.com
I am a Masters Athlete and Coach currently based in London UK. My other projects include the Bud Winter Foundation, writer for the IAAF New Studies in Athletics Journal (NSA) and a member of the Track & Field Writers of America.
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
  • I specifically remember tuning into track meets on TV during the late 70s and early 80s in the hopes of catching even a glimpse of Debbie Brill. Those were the days when so many women in athletics were not particularly pretty. Her grace and beauty far surpassed that of those Soviet-Block testosterone-pumped women with hairy armpits. That made quite an impression on a young adolescent boy who was just beginning to differentiate females from males.

  • how many times did you go to the olympics and would you consider yourself an extremnist and why thank you very much

  • @Sam – I never went to the Olympics as an athlete, but I did as a spectator. Hopefully, I will be going as a coach one day.

    I’ll probably be a “Host” with all my friends coming in town for 2010 in Vancouver.

  • I LOVE high jumping(L)…and long distance running:).
    At my school i hold the record for girls years 7-9 high jumping. I had never done it before, but i entered myself as i had to do something for the athletics day at school. So i was really nervous as i thought i would fail straight away, but i found that i was actually not so bad! It was my first time ever when i smashed the record by 11cm. Considering i did this with a scissor kick, i cleared a (rather high to me!:P) 1.31. I was so proud of myself. I also finished third in a selected 1500m race. So, now i am very into my athletics, and i don’t know where i’d be without it now!
    I’m also a MASSIVE netball fan. I can play almost any position, and also went on a sports trip and was apart of the team:).

    Some of my aceivements:).
    Hopefully i’ll be beating Stefka;)x