Mexico 1968 gold medallist who revolutionised his event by inventing the ‘Fosbury flop’ passed away from cancer just days after turning 76

One of the most iconic figures in track and field athletics, Dick Fosbury, died on Sunday aged 76 from cancer. The American popularised a 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 general public.

Before Fosbury, athletes used the Western roll or straddle techniques with the torso going over the bar sideways or belly-down. But Fosbury leapt over the bar backwards – a technique that gave his body a lower centre of mass than other techniques.

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. But 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.”

Born on March 6, 1947, in Portland, Oregon, Fosbury showed talent from an early age. In an interview with Stuart Weir for AW a few years ago, Fosbury recalled his introduction to athletics at school: “In track and field our teacher had us try every event so I ran, I 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.

Dick Fosbury (Stuart Weir)

“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 chip, which was a technological advance on sand. So the landing was as important as clearing the bar so that you survived the jump!

“As things improved, 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.”

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 in order to progress. Fortunately his change of technique coincided with the introduction of softer landing mats.

“I tried the straddle technique and the belly roll technique but had very poor results,” said Fosbury. “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 15cm 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.

“For the next two years I would lead with my shoulders and was going over the bar at a slight angle. All the time I was doing it by feel as 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.”

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 that there were better jumpers in the competition but that his technique gave him a definite advantage. With hindsight, he added: “No one realised what the advantage would be. But, as history has proved, this was a better technique.”

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,” 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 the 1972 Olympics, four years later, 28 of the 40 competitors used Fosbury’s technique, although gold medallist Jüri Tarmak used the straddle. Fosbury failed to make the US team for the 1972 Olympics and his career was effectively over. But having proved to the world that his technique worked, he had arguably achieved his goal.

In later life he served on the board of the World Olympians Association and was involved in local politics in the United States too.

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 on Monday (March 13) his former agent Ray Schulte announced Fosbury’s death the previous day 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!”

» See the October 18 edition of AW magazine for a feature on more Mexico 1968 moments