Mark Shearman

Tributes Pour in for High Jump Innovator Dick Fosbury

Dick Fosbury, one of the most iconic figures in Athletics, died on Sunday, March 12th at the age of 76 from cancer.

Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1947, Fosbury was to become one of the most influential athletes in the history of track and field for developing the innovative high-jumping technique which upended his sport in the 1960s.

Fosbury popularized his backwards ‘flop’ technique and won Olympic gold at the Mexico Games in 1968.  His innovative method and achievements went beyond his sport and captured the imagination of the world.

Fosbury was always quick to point out that he was not the first to jump backwards as Debbie Brill, a Canadian who won Commonwealth Games titles in 1970 and 1982, was also using the technique, which was dubbed the ‘Brill bend’, at an early stage. Fosbury said: “I was just blessed to be the first one to discover it and have success with it at this high level. So I got naming rights, something I am very proud of.”

Jumping in an age where athletes competed more for love than money, he once said that the flop technique “brought me gifts, not necessarily monetarily but I have met presidents and kings, seen the world, shared my life with wonderful people. It opened doors and allowed people to perceive me in a positive light.”

Prior to Fosbury’s emergence, high jumpers typically attempted to clear the bar using the “straddle technique” in which they would take off face forward while attempting to twist their body mid-leap over the bar.

Fosbury, however, turned the conventional wisdom on its head with his new approach which would become immortalized as the “Fosbury Flop” and remains today the standard technique used by elite high jumpers.

Fosbury first began experimenting with new ways of high jumping while still in school, hitting upon his new technique in 1963 during a competition in which he jumped a personal best of 1.65m using an old technique.

Fosbury was studying for a civil engineering degree at Oregon State University and the 1968 Olympics initially weren’t really in his thoughts. “I had no ambitions because the Olympics seemed so far away and such a high level of competition that I never imagined reaching it,” he said. “I did not have that Olympic dream until 1968 when my training began to produce better results.”

He went to regional trials and USA nationals and was selected for the Mexico Olympics. Once there he jumped 2.24m to win gold from team-mate Ed Caruthers, with Russians third and fourth.

Having won the gold and broken the American record, Fosbury asked for the bar to be raised to 2.29m, hoping to break Valeriy Brumel’s five-year-old world record of 2.28m. However, none of his attempts at 2.29m came close.

Reports at the time suggest that while coaches were appalled at his unorthodox approach, the crowd was captivated. Fosbury’s analysis of the 1968 Olympics is there were better jumpers in the competition but that his technique gave him a definite advantage. With hindsight, he added: “No one realized what the advantage would be. But, as history has proved, this was a better technique.”

“I have had the blessing and good fortune to have made a contribution to the sport but I did not set out to do this,” he said. “I was not trying to change the event. I knew that my technique was my path to success. And I had this technique which was mine – mine alone – and I thought that someday someone would use it. But who knew whether it would be two or three high jumpers or 200. The criticism of other coaches did not really matter as long as I was meeting the rules and reaching the standards.”

In later life he served on the board of the World Olympians Association and was involved in local politics in the U.S.

In 2008 Fosbury was diagnosed with stage one lymphoma and he had surgery the following month to remove a cancerous tumour on his lower vertebra. He survived for a further 15 years but his former agent Ray Schulte announced Fosbury’s death after a short bout with a recurrence of lymphoma.

Schulte said: “It is with a very heavy heart I have to release the news that longtime friend and client Dick Fosbury passed away peacefully in his sleep early Sunday morning after a short bout with a recurrence of lymphoma.

“Dick will be greatly missed by friends and fans from around the world. A true legend, and friend of all!”