On October 20, 1968, 21-year-old Oregonian Dick Fosbury wins gold—and sets an Olympic record—when he high-jumps 7 feet 4 1/4 inches at the Mexico City Games. It was the first American victory in the event since 1956. It was also the international debut of Fosbury’s unique jumping style, known as the “Fosbury Flop.”
The Flop, according to one journalist, “looked like a guy falling off the back of a truck.” Instead of the traditional scissors- or straddle-style forward kick over the bar, it featured a midair rotation so that the jumper landed back-of-the-head-first on the mat. Fosbury described it this way: “I take off on my right, or outside, foot rather than my left foot. Then I turn my back to the bar, arch my back over the bar and then kick my legs out to clear the bar.” It looked odd, but it worked better than any other technique.
Fosbury had invented his Flop in high school, when he discovered that, though he was terrible at the scissors-kick, the straddle and the belly-roll, if he stretched out on his back and landed headfirst, he could jump higher than anyone on his high-school track team. “The advantage,” he said, “from a physics standpoint is, it allows the jumper to run at the bar with more speed and, with the arch in your back, you could actually clear the bar and keep your center of gravity at or below the bar, so it was much more efficient.” At Oregon State University, he used the Flop to win the 1968 NCAA title and the Olympic Trials.
“I think quite a few kids will begin trying it my way now,” he said when the Games were over. “I don’t guarantee my results, and I don’t recommend my style to anyone. All I say is if a kid can’t straddle, he can try it my way.” And indeed, kids everywhere began to practice the Flop over the backs of their sofas and into piles of leaves in the yard. Parents and coaches worried that Fosbury’s technique was dangerous—U.S. Olympic Coach Pat Jordan even warned that it would “wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks”—but the Flop soon became standard practice at track meets. Within a decade, almost every elite high-jumper was doing it Fosbury’s way. Since 1980, no one using any other technique has held the world record.