Fosbury was not a flop

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Dick Fosbury faced the problem that confronts all pioneers: rejection and ridicule. The American transformed the way the high jump was executed with his revolutionary curved run-up and backward clearance at the 1968 Olympics.

Out of the 13 finalists at Mexico, everyone barring Fosbury used the straddle style that was in currency at that time. But the gold medal went to the odd-man out. Fosbury Flop, the name a journalist had given to the American’s path-breaking method of clearing the bar, would become universal.

Fosbury scooped the gold medal with an effort of 2.24m, an Olympic record, at the Mexico Games. But pundits still believed that the champion’s style was a recipe for disaster.

Payton Jordan, USA’s chief athletics coach at Mexico, was ruthless in his assessment of the flop. “Kids imitate champions. If they try to imitate Fosbury, he’ll wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks,” he said.

Jordan’s prophecy, however, fell flat spectacularly. Within 10 years, all the top jumpers in the world would become devotees of Fosbury’s style.

Straddle (rolling over the bar facing the ground) and scissors (jumping over legs first facing upwards) were consigned to history as high jumpers learned the effectiveness of the Fosbury Flop, which used a curved run-up for rotation and speed for vertical power. The flop method also proved that height was critical for a high jumper. Fosbury measured 6’5”.

Fosbury’s trail-blazing style and gold medal didn’t get the attention they deserved as world records tumbled elsewhere in the thin air of Mexico. Bob Beamon’s jaw-dropping performance in the long jump monopolized the headlines. But nobody had as profound an impact on his event as Fosbury.

In his case method mattered more than the centimetres. For that, his name will forever be associated with the high jump. The four-gold medal record of Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis may be upstaged one day but Fosbury’s invention is set in stone.

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