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In 1966 a freshman high jumper from California arrived at Oregon State in Corvallis, took one look at Dick Fosbury's backward style and laughed. As a high schooler, John Radetich had already cleared 6'9�", a mark equal to the OSU record. He didn't figure Fosbury, then a sophomore, was going to be much competition. "To be honest," says Radetich, "I thought his style was a joke."
Two years later, Fosbury won the Olympic gold medal in Mexico City, and his style instigated a revolution that changed the art of high jumping forever.
In the 20 years since, 18 of 24 Olympic medalists have used the "Fosbury Flop"; not since 1972 has a non-Flopper even placed in the men's competition. And as the Olympic Games in Seoul draw near, the men's and women's world records are approaching the eight-foot and seven-foot barriers, respectively, thanks to Floppers Patrik Sj�berg of Sweden and Carlo Thr�nhardt of West Germany (7'11�"), and Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria (6'10�").
All because a gawky teenager, in the spirit of the rebellious '60s, literally turned his back on the Establishment. Before 1968 virtually all high jumpers had used the straddle method, in which the jumper kicks one foot up and rolls over the bar face down. But since then the straddle has gone the way of basketball's two-hand set shot.
What Fosbury wrought was a distinctive new method in which he leaped backward over the bar, head first, as if he were napping on a picnic table with his legs dangling over the end. His ascendancy had a certain whimsical magic to it. "Dick wasn't a prospect, he was a suspect," says Dean Benson, Fosbury's high school coach in Medford, then a town of 29,000 in southern Oregon. "That's what makes this whole story so beautiful. He was just an everyday kid who devised a method that caught on with the whole world."
How did it all begin? Not the way a lot of people think. Among the myths about the Flop's origins are the following: that Fosbury tripped and fell backward over the bar; that he had a back deformity that prevented him from straddling; and that he devised the style with graph paper and slide rule. In fact, the Fosbury Flop simply evolved.
Fosbury started jumping at age 11, using the scissors method, a stand-up style popularized by children leaping small fences while being chased by large dogs. By the time he entered Medford High in 1962, he had a best of only 5'4". "He was a gangly, gawky, grew-too-fast kid," says Benson.
Fosbury kept trying to learn the straddle, but it wasn't to be. "He could never do a straddle worth sour apples," says Dick's father, Doug.
Finally, perhaps out of pity, Benson gave Fosbury the O.K. to use the scissors method in the last meet before the district championships. But come meet day, something unusual happened. Approaching from the left and jumping off his right foot, Fosbury scissored his way to 5'4" without a miss. Then, after the bar went to 5'6", he got an idea. "I began to feel what I needed to do was raise my hips so I wouldn't be knocking the bar off with my butt. And when I raised my hips, I began to drop my shoulders and lay back."
The result looked chaotic, as if two shot-putters had grabbed him by the arms and legs and flung him over the bar. But it worked. Fosbury cleared 5'10" and qualified for the district meet. "It was a total shock to everybody including myself," he says.