Most sports evolve over a long period of time. Rules are changed, patterns of play alter, techniques are adjusted. Only rarely does a sport take a great leap forward at one point. But in Mexico, the world of high jumping changed for ever. And for that, we can thank the American Dick Fosbury, the man who revolutionised his sport by introducing a new style to the world – the Fosbury Flop.
Before Fosbury, high jumpers used the straddle technique in which an athletes ran at the bar and hoisted their legs over one at a time. To modern eyes it seems ungainly but at the time it was universally used. Or at least it was – until Fosbury came along.
He introduced a style not seen at the Games before, by clearing the bar head first, leaping off his left foot, with his back to the bar.
Others had attempted it before – perhaps as much as five years previously – but none were athletes competing at this sort of level. For most Olympians, this was something completely new.
Fosbury either passed or cleared every height that he attempted in Mexico up to, and including, 2.22m. By the time the bar was moved up again, and with him yet to register a single failure, there were only two athletes left in the competition – Fosbury and his American teammate Ed Caruthers.Both men failed twice at 2.24m before Fosbury flopped his way to a clearance. There was to be no such fortune for Caruthers, guaranteeing gold for the sport's new superstar.
The coaches of the world were exasperated but the Mexico City crowd were thrilled. Fosbury had set a new Olympic record and a new personal best, but he had also changed his sport in an instant. In the coming years, the flop became the dominant jumping style and is now used by all leading high jumpers, although a few did persevere. In 1978, Vladimir Yashchenko straddled his way to a world record that lasted two years. Since then, floppers have held all world records and dominated all the major titles.
Dick Fosbury himself would never enjoy such success again. He failed to qualify for the 1972 Games, having lost some of his competitive edge. He retired from sport and became a civil engineer in Idaho.