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No, I don't do the Flop," says Oregon State High Jumper Steve Kelly resignedly. "I'm just classical."
The one who Flops is his illustrious teammate, Olympic gold-medalist Dick Fosbury, who, with allusions to the teachings of Confucius and Lao-tzu, disclosed last weekend that he is going to quit Flopping for six weeks, because the spirit has stopped moving him. Fosbury belongs to no traditional school of jump. He doesn't think about form. "I don't even think about the high jump," he says. "It's positive thinking. I just let it happen." Backward. It may be a modern classic.
Kelly is a practitioner of the time-honored straddle. That is, after a short, springy run he kicks his strikingly muscled outside leg straight up, ascends after it, stretches out face down along the bar and shifts, swivels, alley-oops and finagles himself up and over, arm by arm, hip by hip and leg by leg. By contrast, Fosbury, who has markedly skinny legs and doesn't have, according to his coach, "exceptional spring, strength or speed," takes the more instinctual approach (see below).
In detail, Fosbury charges up from slightly to the left of center with a gait that may call to mind a two-legged camel, hooks to the right at the last moment, plants his outside (or right) foot parallel to the bar, pushes off with "the action of a screw," as he says, so that his back turns abruptly to the bar and, ideally, rises seven feet and change into the air. Then, cocking an eye over his shoulder at the bar, he extends himself like a slightly apprehensive man lying back on a chaise longue that's too short for him and finally kicks his legs up—and falls flat on his back.
The style is backward, but it may be avant-garde. It defies tradition, but it could be the way the Lord meant man to high-jump—with sufficient cushioning. A "back layout," or just "my style," is what its inner-directed author prefers to call it, but to the Oregon State Sports Information Bureau, to the publicists of Madison Square Garden (where Fosbury went out at 6'10" in the Millrose Games last Friday night before announcing that he was withdrawing from six forthcoming meets because "I know I've got it in me but I'm not getting at it") and to little boys jumping backward over couches in living rooms around the country, it is known as the Fosbury Flop.
The first person to call it that was a sportswriter on the Mail Tribune in Medford, Ore. (pop. 29,000) where Fosbury—the son of a truck sales manager and a secretary—grew up and where he was recently welcomed back from the Olympics with the first ticker-tape parade in the town's history. "I was really surprised to see so many people come out," Fosbury recalls. "None of the buildings were tall enough for the ticker tape to reach the street, but...."
The Flop developed, then, in Medford, and it is important to realize that it evolved gradually and naturally, like common law or the mammal. "You'll read that Fm a gymnast," says Fosbury. "You'll read that Fm a physicist and that I sat down one day and figured out a better way to jump. You'll read that I ran up and tripped one day and fell backward over the bar." He shakes his head. In fact, he isn't a gymnast or even, say, a diver or a trampolinist. He used to be in civil engineering but he gave that up this year for less technical studies, such as an introductory course in Eastern religions, which only served to confirm his mystical conception of his event. And he didn't stumble into going over backward, although he acknowledges, readily, that "I didn't change my style. It changed inside me."
To trace this uncommon metamorphosis, we must go back to the fifth grade, where Fos, as he is known, became a high jumper. He went out for grade school track and found, by a process of elimination, that high jumping was what he could do—because he was tall and willing to fall from heights even then. (Now he is 6'4" and a bony 185.) His original impromptu method was the scissors—which Berny Wagner, his coach at OSU, describes as "just natural, like a kid jumping over a fence, sitting up. It's not good because your center of gravity is too high." So first Fosbury's grammar school and then his high school coach labored to teach him the more elaborate and efficient straddle. He learned it but he never got the rhythm, and it didn't carry him very high. Then, in the course of a momentous meet when Fosbury was 16, he reverted to the scissors. As a straddler he had never jumped higher than 5'4". Scissoring, he went higher and higher—and a strange thing began to happen. "As the bar got higher, I started laying out more," he recalls, "and pretty soon I was fiat on my back." It wasn't the Flop yet—he was still carrying most of his body over the bar at once instead of crossing at right angles—but it was backward and a style all his own, and suddenly he was doing 5'10".
By his junior year Fosbury's back was intersecting the bar at a 45° angle and he was clearing a little more than six feet. By the end of his senior year he had just about attained the pure 90° angle Flop. And nobody much cared. "Everybody just thought," Fosbury recalls, " 'It's good to look at, it's pretty funny and everything, but he'll never do anything.' "
But when Fosbury won the National Junior Chamber of Commerce's Junior Championship meet in 1965, the summer after he graduated, Flopping 6'7" into a pit of shavings, Wagner signed him to a letter of intent. Fosbury was planning to go to OSU anyway, and no other school ever showed any interest in him.