He took his event into a great leap forward by going backwards.
Dick Fosbury passed away yesterday due to complications from lymphoma. He was 76 years old.
Over the last 100 years, there have been maybe three fundamentally new techniques in track and field: the glide and the spin in the shot put, and the high jump flop. Fosbury’s idea revolutionized his event like no other; within a few years the other techniques all but disappeared. I started watching track in the 1980s and the only straddle jumper I can ever recall seeing is decathlete Christian Schenk. Nowhere else in track is there so clearly a line of “before” and “after”, not even the advent of doping or supershoes.
Fosbury never set out to be an iconoclast or a counterculture hero. He was an engineering student, which is usually about as far removed from those as you can get. But engineering is about problem-solving, and the problem was that he wanted to be on his high school track team and win a letter, and while he could clearly jump high he couldn’t make heights. So he experimented and didn’t care if people thought he was weird. In a way, his success was a triumph for the nerds of the sports world; if I can just use my brain to invent a better way, I can win!
He is lucky, as are the world’s jumpers, that he was trying his new ideas at a time when children were given a lot of leeway in their own affairs. He never would have been allowed to try it in today’s era of over-coaching from birth.
In recent years, Fosbury was a hero to others in the world of track and field as he led a fund-raising project for a new facility at Oregon State plus a possible return for the men’s team. His alma mater cut the track and cross country programs in 1989 (or more accurately one person at the university cut it, and others had to fall in line). The women’s program returned in 2005 and the new track in 2012, but the other goal was not realized during his lifetime.
Track and field will never again experience what Fosbury brought to the 1968 Olympics.