Saturday night, the eve of the high jump finals, was not restful for Fosbury. He was still worked up from the qualifying rounds earlier that day, which chopped the field down to a dozen finalists. He visualized his jumps over and over. The nocturnal filmstrip played across his eyelids, keeping him awake.
Sunday was a perfect clear, crisp October day, temperature in the mid-70s by 1 p.m., when the high jumpers filed onto the infield. The Olympic Stadium was full, 80,000 fans on hand for the Games' track and field windup. Besides the high jump, there were two men's relays, the 1,500-meter race, a women's relay and the marathon. It was going to be a wild day, though nobody could have guessed how wild.
Poor Ed Caruthers. He had a plan—usually important but, in an Olympics, likely irrelevant, perhaps laughable. Caruthers figured on a jump of 7'3", maybe even 7'4", an Olympic record, by his fifth pass, and he'd have his gold. What he didn't consider was the size of the field, which included many lesser jumpers, guys who had no shot but filled out the finals. To accommodate their numbers, the competition was begun at a height of 6'6", four inches lower than Caruthers's planned entry point. To get even there was taking forever.
Fosbury, on the other hand, had no grand plan, hoping to start at 6'8" and to increase his height two inches at a time to seven feet. It was slow going as the field remained intact nearly to that height. Then, at 6'11½", it started to thin; five failed to clear. Everybody else made the next height, 7'¼", but Caruthers needed all three tries while Fosbury made it on his first attempt. Caruthers, Fosbury and Brown, the other U.S. jumper, passed at 7'1", while Italian and West German jumpers could not scrape over and left the competition. It was now a cold war showdown, three Americans and two Soviets, the way the Olympics were meant to be. The bar was set at just under 7'2". The sun was getting lower, and the fans were starting to get interested.
Fosbury cleared the bar cleanly. When he jumped, though, the spectators laughed. Brown missed on all three tries, as did the Soviet Union's Valery Skvortsov. Gavrilov passed. Caruthers, having missed his first two tries, stared at the bar on his third attempt and flew over it by a full two inches.
Only the three medal winners remained to sort out the podium order. The sight of Fosbury, rocking back and forth on his heels the entire two minutes allowed for his approach and then exploding over the bar upside down, was now generating a lot of excitement. As he came to look more like a champion and less like a circus clown, the crowd's giggles were replaced by cheers. Few fan favorites ever developed in less time.
All three jumpers made 7'2½" on the first try. Now, at 7'3¼", the bronze medalist was determined. As the men's 4 × 100 relay teams wandered through the jump area, Fosbury took his stance, rocked back and forth and dived over. The crowd went wild. Caruthers made it on his second try, but Gavrilov, Fosbury's new buddy, could not clear, and he was out.
It was nearly twilight, four hours into the competition. Shadows were touching the outside of the track, and the air was cooling. Caruthers's strategy was now "out the door," he said. Fosbury had yet to miss a jump, and Caruthers knew that having had to make 10 attempts to Fosbury's six, he was fading. The crowd had swung entirely to Fosbury. "The press, usually reserved even at these emotion-charged Olympics," reported Track & Field News, "cheered at his every jump." The Los Angeles Times's Jim Murray was agape at the journalistic gift that was being handed to him. "Fosbury," he wrote, "goes over the bar like a guy being pushed out of a 30-story window." A German writer exclaimed, "Only a triple somersault off a flying trapeze with no net below could be more thrilling."
The bar was set at 7'4¼", not a world record but a U.S. and Olympic record, a touch more than either Fosbury or Caruthers had ever cleared. Fosbury's heels ticked the bar on his first attempt, for his first miss of the competition. Caruthers missed too. Fosbury missed again. Caruthers missed. The fans were on their feet.
For his third attempt Fosbury went through his usual deliberations—that interminable rocking back and forth, the wiggling of his fingers—eating up the allowable two minutes. He used this time not only to psych himself up but also to review the mechanics of the jump, which required untold adjustments as he converted horizontal force into vertical. He was always fighting his takeoff, which threatened to turn his pass into a long jump instead of a high jump. He rocked, and the fans counted with him, "One, two, three," and kept counting. "Forty," they chanted, "41." Fosbury thought just a little more and then, satisfied with his preparations, began his looping jog to the bar.