Raising the bar
Oxymorons in track and field usually don’t pan out. You won’t find slow sprinters crossing the finish line first, and you would be hard pressed to find a short high jumper. But a successful flop propelled Wood River Valley resident Dick Fosbury to an Olympic gold medal.
A 21-year-old Oregon native cleared 7 feet 4¼ inches in the high jump to claim the gold at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. With that leap, Fosbury set Olympic and American records and set the track and field community on its ear with his radically revolutionary form.
Despite Fosbury’s achievement, critics said the flop was dangerous, impractical and would not last. But Fosbury had the last laugh. Only 12 years later at the 1980 Olympics, 13 of the 16 finalists in the high jump employed the flop. It is now the standard technique.
Traditionally, high jumpers took off on their inside foot and swung their outside foot up and over the bar, traveling face down. The technique is called the “straddle.” Another technique is called the “scissors.”
Fosbury’s flop began with his right foot and he then twisted his body to travel over the bar head first, face up, backwards.
Fosbury began experimenting with his technique as a 16-year-old and over the next two years improved his height from 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 7 inches.
“I adapted an antiquated style and modernized it to something that was efficient. I didn’t know anyone else in the world would be able to use it and I never imagined it would revolutionize the event,” Fosbury said.
Admittedly not an exceptional athlete, Fosbury said what set him apart was his ability to convert horizontal speed (running) to vertical speed (leaping).
And leap he did. Armed with a strength-training program by Oregon State coach Bernie Wagner, Fosbury won both the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships in 1968 and earned an invitation to the Olympic trials.
“I didn’t train to make the Olympic team until 1968. I simply trained for the moment. I never even imagined I would be an Olympic athlete. It always seemed to evolve,” Fosbury recalled.
Mere physical measurements were not the only obstacles Fosbury had to overcome on his march to the Olympics.
In the wake of heavy touring and competition in 1967, Fosbury’s grades plummeted; he flunked out of engineering school, lost his student deferment and was drafted for the war in Vietnam.
It looked like I was going to join the armed forces,” he said.
In a second interview with the draft board, Fosbury presented X-rays that confirmed a bad back and was excused from military service for medical reasons in 1968.
Two weeks later, Fosbury won the NCAA outdoor championship, and went on to secure a berth on the Olympic team by winning the first trial at Los Angeles Coliseum in July. The other two high jumpers would be chosen at a second trial at the conclusion of training camp in September.
The men’s camp was built at Echo Summit in South Lake Tahoe.
“It was a mythical place,” Fosbury recalled. “The track was just off the highway in the middle of the forest and they left the forest inside the track. There were boulders 6 to 8 feet tall scattered next to the high jump. As a kid from Oregon, it was very comfortable to me.”
The training site was built in the early 1960s, with an eye toward the Mexico City games, which would be staged at an altitude of 7,349 feet. Echo Summit is 7,300 feet.
Fosbury and his teammates lived, trained and played all summer. While back home for a few days in Oregon, Fosbury learned that his teammates had threatened to boycott the trials unless the competition was opened up for all three spots on the Olympic team. The U.S. Olympic Committee capitulated, and suddenly Fosbury’s berth on the team had vaporized.
Fosbury recalled, “I was shocked. I had five days to get my act together mentally.”
And physically. After a summer of training together, the U.S. teammates drove each other to unimaginable heights. “It was the hardest competition I had ever been in. Four of us cleared 7-2, but I was not jumping well and was in last place.” Fosbury made the 7-2 height on his third and final jump.
The bar was raised to 7 feet 3 inches. Only one person had ever jumped that height in 1968, Peter Boyce of Stanford.
Fosbury cleared it on his first try.
“It was tough. It was as hard to make the Olympic team as it was to go to the Olympics. It took a supreme effort to make the team,” he said.
The 1968 Olympic
Games were a microcosm of the times, full of political unrest and social
Despite the violence, the Games began as scheduled on October 12. The 1968 Olympics were the first to be held on “primetime” television and the viewing was electric.
In the high, thin air, existing records were smashed. World or Olympic records were set in 26 of 36 track and field events. The United States finished with 45 gold medals, 28 silver and 34 bronzes. The Soviet Union was second with 91 total medals. But revolution was taking place not only out of the blocks, but on the blocks, too.
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, first and third in the 200-meters, bowed their heads and gave the Black Power salute (wearing black gloves and black socks) during the National Anthem to protest racism in the United States.
Fosbury recalled: “I saw it on TV and I was shocked like anyone was. In retrospect it presented such a negative image. But it had a powerful effect.”
While living in the Olympic Village, the quiet kid from Oregon was smashing his own ideas and experiencing his own revolution from within. “I met Germans and Russians who I had been taught were our enemies. And I learned we had more in common than we were separated by,” he said.
“Best Day Ever”
The high jump finals were held on the last day of the track and field competition, October 20.
“When you reach that elite level, 90 percent is mental and 10 percent is physical,” Fosbury said. “You are competing against yourself. Not against the other athlete.”
But Fosbury credits U.S. teammate Ed Caruthers with propelling him to victory. “Competitors brought out the best in me. I have rarely set a record if I was the last jumper,” Fosbury said. “I was pushed to set an Olympic record by a teammate.”
During the four-hour competition, veteran Ed Caruthers, who matched him jump for jump, followed Fosbury.
“I always felt the pressure that I had to be strong to lead the competition,” Fosbury remarked.
Both hit the bar twice at the gold-medal height of 7 feet 4½ inches. Fosbury cleared it on his third attempt. Caruthers missed and captured the silver at 7 feet 3½ inches. Soviet Valentin Gavrilov was the bronze medalist at 7 feet 2½ inches.
“It was clearly the best day ever,” Fosbury said.
With his flop of 7 feet 4½ inches, Fosbury became the first American gold medalist in the high jump in 12 years. “At that moment I was at the zenith of my height, and I realized there was space between me and the bar. I will always take that with me,” he said. “It was a peak experience.”
After winning the gold medal, Fosbury returned to Oregon State University for his senior year and talked the dean of the Engineering School into taking him back.
He was accepted on a probationary period and on the condition he give up sports. “It was actually an easy choice for me, to commit to being an engineer. I was more than satisfied. I had gone beyond what I imagined I could do,” Fosbury said.
Fosbury did go on to win the NCAA title in 1969 and place second in the AAU championships, but for all practical purposes his track and field forays were over.
Fosbury graduated from OSU in 1972 and became an engineer. He and his former wife Janet Jarvis moved to Ketchum in 1977 and he joined on with Jim Koonce at Sawtooth Engineering, which would eventually evolve into Galena Engineering. “What I like is solving problems. In engineering you have a primary responsibility to the public to design infrastructure and make it safe,” he said.
Fosbury, still lean
and fit at age 57, remains involved in both the Olympics and track and
field. He conducts jumping clinics at Bates College in Maine every
summer, is secretary-general for the World Association of Olympic
Winners and the honorary chairman of the 2004 Simplot Games
In August Fosbury will attend the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. He will go as a representative of Xerox, but said he would go even if it were not in an official capacity. “I am not going to miss it. It will be exciting, unpredictable and a great celebration,” he said. “It’s worth any kind of risk,” he added, alluding to the threat of terrorism.
“I love sports. There are clearly events I prefer, but I like to watch anything that is still amateur. Where athletes are still true to the sport and make personal sacrifices.” •