Dick Fosbury (© Getty Images)
World Athletics is deeply saddened to hear that 1968 Olympic high jump champion Dick Fosbury, who revolutionised his event by introducing the ‘Fosbury flop’ technique, died on Sunday (12) at the age of 76.
Among the most influential athletes in the sport, Fosbury’s innovation took the high jump to another level and he remained involved in athletics throughout his life. Sharing his knowledge and skill with future generations by coaching at numerous track camps, he also went on to serve as Vice President of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Association, and President of the World Olympians Association.
Born in Portland, Oregon, on 6 March 1947, Fosbury grew up in Medford where he took part in basketball as well as track and field. He developed what would become the ‘Fosbury flop’ while at Medford High, his achievements in the high jump securing him a scholarship to Oregon State University, where he earned an engineering degree.
Before Fosbury, high jumpers would commonly use the straddle or scissor techniques to clear the bar, but in the mid 1960s a US teenager was busy honing a more effective method. After Fosbury won NCAA titles indoors and outdoors in 1968, the new style made its international debut at the Olympic Games in Mexico City later that year.
“In 1968 Mexico, the spectators were so surprised by what I was doing, that they stopped cheering and just looked,” Fosbury said in a 2014 interview with Spikes magazine.
“Even when the marathon runners came in after running 26 miles, there was silence. But my preference (for jumping) was quiet anyway.”
The 21-year-old ended up winning gold with an Olympic record clearance of 2.24m.
Dick Fosbury in the high jump at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (© AFP / Getty Images)
Other athletes had also been experimenting with backwards head-first techniques, including Canada’s future Commonwealth Games champion Debbie Brill, but Fosbury's style really captured attention in Mexico City and not everybody liked the idea at first.
“What I had developed worked for me,” he told Ato Boldon in 2015. “The criticism of other coaches didn’t really matter as long as I was meeting the rules, meeting the standards.”
But by the next edition of the Olympic Games, in Munich in 1972, 28 of the 40 high jump participants were using his technique, which Fosbury initially referred to as the ‘back lay-out’, named using his “engineering analytical side”.
In a later interview, he called it the ‘Fosbury flop’, and the term stuck.
“I was the first person to call it that, but it came from a caption on a photo that said ‘Fosbury flops over bar’,” he said.
“The context in Oregon was that our town was on a river, very popular for fishing, an hour from the Pacific Ocean. And when you land a fish on the bank, it’s flopping. That’s the action, and so it’s a good description by a journalist, and I remembered it.”
Following his retirement from competitive athletics, Fosbury had a successful engineering career and coached at athletics camps around the world, including his own Dick Fosbury Track Camps. He joined the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1981 and was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame in 1992.
He leaves a remarkable legacy.
"There are many great champions in our sport but few leave a legacy like Dick Fosbury, who transformed the high jump with his revolutionary technique," said World Athletics President Sebastian Coe. "He was passionate about track and field throughout his life and gave much to our sport beyond his innovative mindset, which famously won him Olympic gold in Mexico in 1968. His name will live on as the inventor of the Fosbury Flop. You will be missed, Dick. My deepest condolences to his family and friends."
“One of the greatest legends in the sport is gone,” wrote Steinar Hoen, Norway’s 1994 European high jump champion. “Dick Fosbury changed the high jump style and indirectly, my life. Rest in peace.”
USA Track & Field CEO Max Siegel was also among those to pay tribute. "I am deeply saddened by the passing of Dick Fosbury, a true legend and pioneer in the world of track and field," he said. "Dick's innovative technique of the 'Fosbury Flop' revolutionised the high jump event and forever changed the sport. His gold medal victory at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics not only cemented his place in US Olympic history, but also left an indelible mark on the global athletic community. We will always be grateful for his contributions to the sport and his impact on generations of athletes who followed in his footsteps. Dick will be deeply missed but his legacy will live on as an inspiration to all."
“Yesterday, one of the most famous figures in the high jump passed away,” said Amelie Oudea-Castera, France’s minister of sports and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. “Dick Fosbury had revolutionised the practice of this sport with his sublime audacity. Thoughts to his loved ones.”