Dick Fosbury changed the high jump forever with a technique that he developed from 1965 to 1968. Stuart Weir met Dick and interviewed him in 2011 at the Daegu World Champs in the adidas HQ. He revised this story in 2020.
Dick Fosbury died, in his sleep, on Sunday, March 12, 2023. He was 76. Your editor met Dick Fosbury for the first time in 1996 and then saw him at various events, including Daegu 2011. Dick Fosbury was always thoughtful, a man with a ready smile and a good quote or observation for a journalist.
This piece, from Stuart Weir, helps the reader appreciate the absolute paradigm change that Mr. Fosbury brought to our sport.
At the 2011 World Champs, Dick Fosbury and Blanka Vlasic spoke to the media about the high jump. It was one of those magical moments.
Dick Fosbury is no flop.
The sad death of Dick Fosbury made me reflect on meeting him at an adidas reception in Daegu, Korea, in 2011. How many other athletes – even multi-medal winners – can claim to have changed the face of their sport? Fosbury is still seen as the man who changed the high jump forever. All the quotes in this article are from that 2011 event.
Blanka Vlasic and Dick Fosbury, Daegu 2011, WC, photo by Stuart Weir
The paradox of Dick Fosbury is that he competed only in one Olympics. The 1968 Olympic champion failed to make the USA team for the 1972 Games, and his career was over effectively – winning the gold medal in 1968. Yet over 50 years later, one can say that Dick Fosbury literally changed the high jump forever.
Dick Fosbury was born in 1947. Growing up in the state of Oregon, track and field was a popular sport. He recalls: “In track and field, our teacher had us try every event, so I ran, threw, and I jumped. And he taught me to high jump using the Western roll, where the jumper ran at the bar with a straight approach and aimed their arm and leg at the bar to go over belly first and land in the pit -which was the standard technique at the time.
“The other technique that he taught us was the scissors, where you run at the bar and clear the bar with your seat while your legs did a scissor kick over it. For me, this was a simple technique. And, of course, in those days, you were landing in sawdust or wood chips, even if that was a technological advance on the sand. So the landing was as important as clearing the bar so that you survived the jump! But as things improved, the wood chip was a good environment for us to land in. All the schools had sawdust pits, then the new environment was with foam, and that is what really opened it up because we were jumping into a safer environment”.
Dick Fosbury, talking about high jump shoes, photo by Stuart Weir, 2011, Daegu WC
For anyone living in the modern era, it may be hard to grasp and believe that before Dick Fosbury, no high-jumper went over the bar backward. But that was how it was.
Then Dick Fosbury, a frustrated schoolboy obsessed with the high jump, realized that he was never going to improve using traditional methods.
The best high-jumper in the world at the time was the Russian Valery Brumel. In the years 1960-63, Brumel took an Olympic silver medal and broke the world record six times before becoming Olympic Champion in Tokyo in 1964. The young Fosbury studied him. “I read everything I could about his technique and his training. That was where I learned about his speed, his greatest asset”.
Fosbury was using the scissors technique and felt comfortable with it, but his coach explained that the technique was too limiting, so he would have to change to progress. Of course, the coach wanted him to change to the classical style.
“I tried the straddle and belly roll techniques but had very poor results. So I asked my coach if I could go back to the scissors. He said, ‘don’t quit yet, but it is your decision.’ So I decided to go back to scissors, and at age 16 (in 1963), I jumped a personal best height of 1.65m. Then they raised the bar, and I knew I had to try something different to get over it. I knew I had to lift my hips up and to do that, I needed to get my shoulders back out of the way. And I cleared the bar at the next height, eventually jumping 1.77m, so I improved by 15 cm that day. In that competition, I changed my position from sitting on the bar to lying flat and going over on my back – upside down from everyone else. The change made me competitive, and I finished fourth in the meet.
Dick Fosbury, 2011 Daegu, WC, adidas HG, Dick is speaking on the development of HJ shoes, photo by Stuart Weir.
“For the next two years, I would lead with my shoulders and be going over the bar at a slight angle. I was always doing it by feeling as if there was no model to follow. I was creating it as I went. In my second year (senior year in high school), I had turned my back to the bar and arched over the bar to fall into the pit. And by then, by 1965, the flop had arrived”.
It wasn’t until 1968 that the Olympics came into 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. 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 Mexico City 1968 Olympics. He jumped 2.24m to win the gold medal from a team-mate with Russians third and fourth – sadly, his hero, Valery Brumel, had retired following a motorcycle accident”.
Contemporary reports say the crowd was captivated while coaches were appalled at his unorthodox approach. Fosbury’s analysis of the 1968 Olympics is that there were better jumpers in the competition but that his technique gave him a definite advantage. With hindsight, he adds: “No one realized what the advantage would be, but as history has proved, this was a better technique.”
Dick Fosbury, Mexico 1968, photo by USOPC Archives
Fosbury never set out to change the sport. He just found a technique that worked for him: “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. 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 knows whether it would be 2 or 3 high jumpers or 200. The criticism of other coaches did not matter as long as I met the rules and reached the standards”. That in the 1972 Olympics, four years later, 28 of the 40 competitors used Fosbury’s technique vindicated him totally.
Fosbury was quick to point out that he was not the first to jump backwards as a girl called Debbie Brill and another jumper in Montana also came up with the approach of jumping backwards. He adds with a twinkle: “I was just blessed to be the first one to have success with it at this high level. So I got naming rights, something I am very proud of”.
Another unique contribution that Dick Fosbury made to the high jump was the development of special high-jump shoes with Adi Dassler (as in Adi-Das). “At that time, high jump shoes were leather and had some kind of grippy surface on the sole. High jump shoes are very special shoes for our event because they have a build-up on the forefront. After my success in the Olympics, I talked with Adi Dassler. We had four spikes at the front and heel spikes for traction to keep us from slipping on take-off. After the meeting, Adi sent me shoes with a single spike”. Dassler was a designer and an inventor of athletic equipment, and Fosbury was an engineer. Together they worked through several proto-types to reach a shoe that worked well in the high jump.
Fosbury failed to make the US team in 1972, and his career was effectively over. He had arguably achieved his goal by proving to the world that his technique worked. Of course, Fosbury competed in the amateur era. He said the flop “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”.
I feel privileged to have met him.