This rather obvious reality has frozen sports—most of which are just highly stylized versions of getting from here to there—in time. If a cartwheel had been the most efficient way for our forebears to leap a chasm, then today's long jump competition would look much different. Some movements are simply beyond improvement.
Consider, then, the Fosbury Flop, an upside-down and backward leap over a high bar, an outright—an outrageous!—perversion of acceptable methods of jumping over obstacles. An absolute departure in form and technique. It was an insult to suggest, after all these aeons, that there had been a better way to get over a barrier all along. And if there were, it ought to have come from a coach, a professor of kinesiology, a biomechanic, not an Oregon teenager of middling jumping ability.
And yet Dick Fosbury was the perfect, maybe the only, vehicle for innovation when it came to the high jump. All athletes recognize a performance imperative, a drive to exceed their limits, to explore upper boundaries. It's why they train and tweak. But Fosbury had the additional impetus of being a teenager. There is no swifter, more terrible saber-toothed tiger than the ritual humiliation of adolescence. He felt that animal's breath on his neck every day, and he felt it more keenly than his peers: He had picked the one sport that might return the favor of his determination but had gotten embarrassment instead.
In sport, the rarest kind of innovation is true, elemental change. The catalog of tinkering, or invention, that has produced substantive departures in form is slim indeed. Candy Cummings's "skewball" in the 1860s, the progenitor of the curveball? Notre Dame's forward pass in 1913? Paul Arizon's jump shot in the 1950s? The core movements of athletics, grounded in so much human history, do not easily, or very often, yield to change. Modern sports are somewhat amenable to improvement, but the rewards of experimentation diminish in proportion to the antiquity of the event. And few are older than the high jump.
Ancient though it was, the high jump at least seemed agreeable to experimentation. Jumpers found that they could throw themselves over the bar, more or less forward, by tucking their takeoff legs under their bodies. The Eastern Cutoff (which combined the Scissors motion with a headfirst approach), first seen in 1892, gave way to the Western Roll in 1912. By 1930 the last great change had occurred, although it was only a change by degrees. Now jumpers, still flinging themselves over headfirst, did not tuck their legs anywhere but stretched them horizontally. The facedown technique—like throwing your leg over a saddle—became known as the Straddle and produced another inch or two in height.
And that, except for some fooling around with run-up speeds and arm movements (the Russians were particularly good at putting all these little elements together, winning Olympic gold in 1960 and '64) was where the event remained until Fosbury's day. All jumpers used the Straddle. It was the only way to go.
When Fosbury jumped 5'10" at that rotary meet at Grants Pass in 1963, he was in a back layout position, his shoulders going even farther back in reaction to his lifting hips. It was on-site engineering, his body and mind working together, making reflexive adjustments with only one goal, getting over the bar. In an act of spontaneity, or maybe rebellion, he created a style unto itself.
Fosbury's coach, Dean Benson, was not about to insist that he give up six inches on account of tradition. The improvement was too sensational. The next season, his junior year, Fosbury continued to refine the jump. His arms and legs were still all over the place, but what looked like an airborne seizure was actually Darwinian activity. Those tics and flailings that served to get him even a quarter inch higher survived. The rest were gradually pared away. During that next full year of his upside-down layout, Fosbury began to lean with his shoulder, about 45 degrees to the bar, and broke the school record of 6'3". By his senior year he had introduced a curved approach, turning his back to the bar, completing the rotation, arching, lifting his hips and kicking his feet clear in a final motion. He finished second in the state, now able to clear 6'5½", well ahead of Steve Davis.
Fosbury was gaining attention, but more as a novelty than as the next new thing. In 1964 a photographer captured this craziness, and the shot went around the world, Des Moines to Johannesburg. WORLD'S LAZIEST HIGH JUMPER was the caption in one newspaper. A better caption, appearing under a staff photo in the Medford Mail-Tribune, was FOSBURY FLOPS OVER THE BAR. A reporter returned to the phrase in a meet story, saying Fosbury looked like nothing more than a fish flopping into a boat. Fosbury was tickled by the connotation of failure. He was a contrarian at heart. The Fosbury Flop was born.
You might ask, If this was a far superior method, why hadn't somebody invented it before Fosbury? First, it wasn't necessarily a far superior method. For some past champions, it might not have been the least bit superior. But for a certain kind of jumper, one who just couldn't combine all the elements of conventional technique—a fast run-up, exaggerated arm action or, more important, the straight-leg kick at takeoff that seemed to lift the jumper over the bar—Fosbury's new method might be more rewarding. Fosbury was a bent-leg jumper. In his upside-down leap it didn't matter where his legs were, as long as they kicked free at the end.