At the end of the long-jump runway, an athlete grimly surveyed his course, apparently convinced that a glowering look at the sand pit 150 feet away would induce a recess from gravity, if not the true meaning of life. He drew a deep breath, broke into his sprint down the runway, launched himself off the board and—Hey, look at that, Ethel!—did a full forward somersault before he landed.
Thus did John Delamere of Washington State earn a cheer for grit, as true as the sand he brushed off his palms. While he failed to qualify for the long-jump finals in the NCAA championships in Austin, Texas last month, his style was, by a long shot, the most eye-catching of the competition. The 22-year-old New Zealander had just demonstrated the flip, which is either the first significant long-jump breakthrough in more than 50 years or a spectacular way to break your neck.
Long jumpers have been bounding off into sand and sawdust since the earliest days of track and field competition, but not until this year did a sizable number alter the flight plan with the forward somersault. Those who have adopted it swear it is in a class with the Fosbury Flop and the fiber-glass pole and will produce the first 30-foot jump. Others say the flip is a fluke, but most coaches and athletes are undecided, waiting to vote one way or the other as performance, or injury, dictates.
Or the rules. Unless the 30-foot jump happens soon, the International Amateur Athletic Federation may render deliberation moot by voting to outlaw the flip in international competition when its technical committee meets in Rome next month. At an earlier IAAF meeting reservations were voiced about the technique.
"Some members of the committee." said U.S. delegate Pincus Sober, "felt that the method is so different that it is not the event traditionally known as the long jump." Asked why no similar action was proposed when the flop high jump appeared, Sober said soberly, "There was nothing we could do about the flop because it was in wide practice before we could do anything about it."
Whatever the disposition of the flap over the flip, the technique is not that new. The somersault long jump had been written about and discussed before the last Olympic Games by Tom Ecker, a coach and authority on biomechanics who is the flip's No. 1 advocate, if not its modern-day originator. Author of Track and Field Dynamics, Ecker says he never heard of the flip before 1970, when he wrote his book. Since its publication in 1971, however, he has talked to a coach who says he saw it performed in 1947 and has heard from another reader who claims to have seen it in 1925.
Ecker's advocacy engendered little response until last year, when Pole Vaulter Dave Nielsen, a student at the University of Iowa, took up the somersault long jump for fun. A Swedish-born American citizen who had never been more than a mediocre long jumper, Nielsen improved his conventional best by a foot to 22'6" with the flip. At a meet in Stockholm he demonstrated the technique for Hans Lagerqvist, the Swedish vaulter, who later enlightened the Germans, among others, by demonstrating the flip over television. Shortly thereafter, 32-year-old Bernhard Stierle of West Germany adopted the technique, flipped 7.5 meters (24'7�") and somehow was credited with inventing the thing.
While others may have tried the flip before the '70s or gained more recent notoriety with its use, Ecker was the first to explain its technical advantages through the laws of physics. Ecker claims the flip has undeniable dynamic advantages over conventional jumping, not the least of which is reduced wind resistance, because of the compact manner in which the jumper tucks his body together. The biggest plus, however, is that the flipper utilizes forward body rotation, while rotation is what most hinders the "normal" jumper.
Whether he knows it or not, once the conventional jumper leaves the board, he is fighting "the principle of the hinged moment," which sounds like a daytime TV serial but is a physical law. It says that when any object is moving and one end of it is stopped, the opposite end continues moving at an accelerated rate to produce rotation. Because a long jumper's foot is stopped on the board for about .12 seconds while his upper body is still moving, the forward rotation will dump the juniper on his face unless he compensates with the hitch kick, the hang, or some other counteracting body movement. Even with those techniques, which are difficult to learn, rotation is diminished only temporarily.
Trouble enough in the air, rotation presents a greater problem when the conventional jumper lands. At the precise moment when he wants his feet as far ahead of his body as possible, forward rotation may make his heels trail his body and thus hit the sand prematurely.