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Roy Blount Jr.
February 10, 1969
Dick Fosbury, Olympic gold medalist in the high jump and inventor of the Fosbury Flop, has quit jumping for a while, but the Fosbury Phenomenon—countless kids making great leaps backward—abides
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February 10, 1969

Being Backward Gets Results

Dick Fosbury, Olympic gold medalist in the high jump and inventor of the Fosbury Flop, has quit jumping for a while, but the Fosbury Phenomenon—countless kids making great leaps backward—abides

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In college he tried once again to tamper with nature and learn the straddle. Weaning him from the Flop was Wagner's idea, but Fosbury agreeably complied. "I wanted to be a good high jumper," he explains, "and I knew I couldn't be a good high jumper backwards." So, while continuing to Flop in competition, he worked on straddling in practice, and he got to where he could go all of 5'10" that way. "There was a time," says Wagner, "when I considered making a triple jumper out of him." (Since the world is probably not ready for the backward triple jump, and it is somehow hard to imagine a forward Fosbury, it is a good thing that notion was not pursued.) But then one summer day, when he was 19, and while Wagner was filming the Flop out of curiosity, Fosbury cleared the bar, which was set at 6'6", by a good six inches attired in a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts. "That," says Wagner, "was when I first thought he was going to be a high jumper."

Fosbury forsook the straddle for good, did 6'10" in his sophomore year and then, last season, as a junior, became the most consistent seven-footer in the nation. He still wasn't expected to win an Olympic medal but he took to topflight competition like a man who has never reflected on the terrible pun inherent in "Flop." Fosbury had to jump 7'3", his best up to that time, to make the U.S. team, and at Mexico City he reached his apogee—7'4¼ ", an Olympic and American record, only 1½ inches short of Valery Brumel's world mark—and became, like another late starter, a household word.

Men 20 years his senior (Fosbury is 21) now come up to him in restaurants, blurt, "I saw your feat on television...." and then stand there speechless. Last week, newspaper ads for the Madison Square Garden Invitational, at which a dozen Olympic athletes will compete (but not the dispirited Fosbury) pictured him in midair with the caption, "See Olympic Champion Dick Fosbury Jump the 'Fosbury Flop.' " And now, too, there has arisen what is known as the Fosbury Phenomenon (or Fenomenon)—which may be summed up in two questions: "Will the Flop revolutionize high jumping?" and "Will it cause the cream of America's young manhood to break their necks?"

The answers are "Maybe" and "Probably not." As it happens, there are two other jumpers, both female—a German girl whose name Fosbury has forgotten and 15-year-old Debbie Brill of Vancouver—who lay claim to having Flopped independently, by going through the same process as Fosbury. An un-calculated but much greater number of young folks started jumping backward derivatively—after seeing Fosbury on TV. Some of these are impressionable boys whose parents are now writing Fosbury to complain that the Flop is ruining their furniture. Others are high school and lowly college jumpers, many of whom are, as they say in the self-improvement ads, getting dramatic results. Track coaches are divided in their opinions as to whether the style is revolutionary, but several are known to be working with unpolished boys whom it might transform. Wagner is instructing three fledgling OSU jumpers in the Flop and he has been accepting invitations to expound it at clinics. "You can teach it to a 5'6" jumper, and in two weeks he will be going 5' 10"," Wagner says. "Of course, it may just be a shortcut to mediocrity."

But the fact that Fosbury himself seems to possess no exceptional powers besides that of invention ("I have a discus thrower," says Wagner, "who can jump-reach higher than Dick") suggests that the style may be of general value. Undoubtedly, it exposes a minimum of the body to the bar at any one time. What you have crossing the bar, in fact, is an orderly progression of cross sections. "Man is bilaterally symmetrical," notes Wagner, "and with this style both arms and both legs are doing the same thing, and the body goes over in a straight line. It's simpler in the air." It is also more fluid in the pivot—Fosbury is able to run harder at the bar and decelerate less as he nears it than most jumpers. And it may be more powerful from the ground. "When gymnasts want to get real high at the end of a routine," Wagner points out, "they turn around and jump backward. It's possible that you get a fuller extension of the quadriceps [front thigh] muscle that way and a better use of the heel-and-toe flexion. It just may be that the human mechanism goes up more effectively backward."

But then there is the question of safety, which has led some observers to urge that the Flop be banned. In fact, a Dr. J. T. O'Hanlan of Waynesboro, Va. has already written an anti-Flop article for the Virginia Medical Monthly. The style is all right for Fosbury, says Dr. O'Hanlan, with the special "pits"—actually three-foot-high pads—he jumps into, but the average young jumper experimenting with the style is liable to suffer severe vertebral damage. A man who phoned Wagner recently put it more strongly. "Why don't you stop that kid?" he said. "He's going to kill my boy."

But Dr. O'Hanlan's thesis, though it is not to be dismissed lightly, rests on at least three false assumptions, aside from his impression that Fosbury's name is Bill. The first is that "most high on all four extremities." In fact, most of them often land on their backs, whatever style they use. Non-Floppers frequently appear, however, to land with more of a roll and less direct force. The second is that Fosbury falls on the back of his neck, flexing it sharply onto the chest. In fact, he lands flat on his back and shoulders. The third is that he is able to survive only because he comes down on "an expensive air-filled rubber bladder, peculiar to the Olympics." In fact, at Oregon State he lands on the school's homemade pad of foam rubber sewn up in canvas. Fosbury doesn't even like air-filled pits. "They go 'Baroomp!' all around you when you land," he says. In meets he comes down on the standard foam-rubber Port-A-Pit, used in the Olympics—and onto which pole vaulters fall on their backs from heights of 17 feet. The Port-A-Pit is too expensive for most schools, but Wagner says that, because of the danger of jumping any which way, every high school should be required to have some kind of foam pit. And any team, he says, can make its own with scrap foam for $300.

So the case for abolition is shaky, although the AMA's Committee on the Medical Aspects of Sports has taken a look at the Flop. But Wagner, Fosbury and everyone else agree that anybody who Flops into sawdust, shavings, mattresses or sand is foolhardy. In point of fact, Fosbury himself developed his style going into shavings. But one day, when he was 16, and experimenting with the proto-Flop, he awoke unable to get out of bed. He had spent the previous day cutting up logs for the county, which entailed a lot of bending over, but an examination revealed two compressed vertebrae—a condition that probably stemmed from jumping. The first doctor he saw told him he would never jump again. He went to another doctor, who said the damage was already done and wouldn't get worse. Fosbury went back to landing on those vertebrae, and they haven't bothered him since. He suffered his only other serious jumping injury in his fraternity house, when he was challenged to a chair-jumping contest. The challenger cleared the chair impressively. Says Fosbury, "I stood there and got all psyched up and started swinging my arms and I hit the chair with my hand and broke a bone in it. Then I cleared the back of the chair but landed in the seat. So I lost."

The Flop has also been criticized on grounds, more or less, of taste. "It was the spectacular nature of the 'back-side-first' jump that drew the attention of the TV audience to Fosbury, not his performance," scoffs Dr. Ernst Jokl, head of the Exercise Research Laboratories at the University of Kentucky, who observed the Olympics for UNESCO. "Let me quote St. Augustine: The public is an ass.' "

Oddly enough Fosbury, though he would not likely be concerned or impolite enough to put it so bluntly, might well go along with St. Augustine. He does like roaring crowds, because they psych him up, and so he doesn't mind that he is likely to be singled out even during warmup jumps and sometimes cheered when he misses. But Fosbury doesn't care for some of the more intimate aspects of celebrity. He skipped the traditional gold-medalist's press conference in Mexico City and wearies, understandably, of being asked over and over and over how he Flops. "I'm just not the kind of guy who wants people to come up out of the blue and start talking," he says. And he dislikes being plagued for autographs. "Whenever kids start flocking around, I really get up tight," he says. "I try to get out of there as fast as I can. I'm not that kind of guy."

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