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The Revolutionary
RICHARD HOFFER
September 14, 2009
AS A GAWKY TEENAGER IN THE 1960S, DICK FOSBURY JUST WANTED TO FIND SOMETHING HE WAS REALLY GOOD AT. LITTLE DID HE KNOW HE WOULD BECOME AN OLYMPIC CHAMPION AND TURN A SPORT LITERALLY UPSIDE DOWN
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September 14, 2009

The Revolutionary

AS A GAWKY TEENAGER IN THE 1960S, DICK FOSBURY JUST WANTED TO FIND SOMETHING HE WAS REALLY GOOD AT. LITTLE DID HE KNOW HE WOULD BECOME AN OLYMPIC CHAMPION AND TURN A SPORT LITERALLY UPSIDE DOWN

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An event that the guys and gals of Stenlund's camper definitely wanted to see was the arrival of the Olympic torch at the Pyramid of the Moon, 30 miles away in the pre-Columbian ruins of Teotihuacán. Mexican organizers had used some imagination in designing the ritual torch relay, choosing the paths of early explorers such as Cortés. On Saturday, Mexico's torchbearer, Enriqueta Basilio, a 20-year-old hurdler, would carry the flame up the steps to the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium and start the Games. But the Friday-night ceremonies at Teotihuacán, Mexico's first great city, offered considerably more authenticity.

The Pyramid of the Moon is located on the Avenue of the Dead, but it was a very lively place when Stenlund and Fosbury and the girls got there. Tens of thousands of Mexicans had gathered at the pyramid for song and native performances. (There were 1,500 brightly costumed dancers on hand.) The four Americans ate chicken tacos and bean soup, drank the local beer, listened to the mariachis and settled in for the arrival of the torch. This was not going to be just another stop for the sacred fire, either; Sylvania had rigged the site with 1,900 flashbulbs, and the instant the runner lit the flame, the entire pyramid would light up. When the runner bent his torch to the cauldron, it was like a lightning strike. Stenlund, Fosbury and the women were thoroughly seduced by the scene and decided to stay there the night, at the base of the ancient pyramid, under the stars.

Back in Mexico City, meanwhile, all roads within a mile of the Olympic Stadium were closed to everybody but officials, taxis and buses for the opening ceremonies. But even sanctioned traffic exceeded the event's parking capacity. Cars and buses were simply abandoned as close to the destination as possible. Try as he might, Stenlund could not get his group to the ceremonies. He beeped his little horn and maneuvered as best he could, but it was no use. He and Fosbury and the girls laughed all the way.

Ed Caruthers was 19 years old at the 1964 Olympics, and he was without a coach or friends in Tokyo. About all he could do was rattle around the athletes' village. He played some Ping-Pong, but mostly he hung out in the dining room. He had three weeks before his event, and it seemed forever. So what if he was going back and forth to the ice cream machine? What else did he have to do?

Caruthers gained 10 pounds, and even if the weight was distributed invisibly along his 6'5" frame, it was quite a disadvantage. Jumping over a bar set at 7'1", which he had been doing that season, tops in the country, was never easy. Doing it with the equivalent of a Thanksgiving turkey tucked under his arm might be impossible. Despite a crash diet of breakfast cereal in the final days before his event, Caruthers could not return to form, and he jumped almost three inches beneath his personal best to finish eighth.

At least Caruthers could return for a second Olympics still very much in his prime. This time he would know better than to subsist on soft-serve ice cream. But the Olympics are subject to a terrible serendipity and do not always yield to determination. Caruthers would find that self-sacrifice, at the dairy bar or anywhere else, would count for little and that at the Mexico City Games, in a year that honored idiosyncrasy above all else, even the jump of his life wouldn't get him gold.

Because who could have anticipated Dick Fosbury? Caruthers had first seen him at the NCAA championships in 1967, employing a "goofball kind of thing" to get over the bar. He had not been impressed. But at the Los Angeles trials the next year, when Fosbury won with a leap of 7'1", Caruthers was obliged to take notice. Sport magazine called Fosbury "our best bet" to win the Olympic high jump. But tradition always prevails, and Caruthers liked his own chances. After all, he'd won the trials in Tahoe, the ones that counted.

In Mexico City, Caruthers was mindful of diet and nutrition, and Fosbury conducted preparations that were almost daffy in comparison. He and Stenlund were always tearing around the city. They liked to rumble up to the Hotel del Angel off Reforma Boulevard, where they'd go to the penthouse bar and hang out with the ABC crews. They'd sit at the feet of Howard Cosell and Jim McKay and absorb their stories. As far as training went, well, Fosbury had his own program.

The one thing he didn't like to do in practice was jump. He was a dedicated athlete, but he simply did not believe in jumping without proper incentive, or even atmosphere. It was only in competition, with the adrenaline flowing, that Fosbury could make a jump that mattered. And the crowd: He required attention to perform. In practice, with nobody watching him and nothing on the line, it was all he could do to make a few desultory repetitions.

Wagner had made the trip to Mexico City and insisted that Fosbury jump at least once. "Look," he said, "you've got a month here, you're getting rusty, you gotta do something." So Fosbury put off his adventures with Stenlund for a day and went to the practice field for a quick session. He just went through the motions until a rainstorm rolled through, forcing everyone to run for cover. Under a tarp he found himself shoulder-to-shoulder with Valentin Gavrilov, the Soviet Union's No. 1 jumper. They nodded, then engaged in a stumbling conversation. Gavrilov was the enemy, not only in sport but also in every way possible. Because of Gavrilov's government, Fosbury had had to duck under his school desk for air-raid drills. He'd had to worry about nuclear clouds poisoning his family. Yet there they were, chatting away, Gavrilov in his halting English, about events in Mexico, conditions at the athletes' village, everything. The storm cleared out after an hour, but Fosbury and Gavrilov, mortal enemies, remained under the tarp awhile longer, chewing the fat.

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