Athletics goodbye to Dick Fosbury, the “nut job” who couldn’t play sports and revolutionized high jumping

The American died at the age of 76 and marked an era in athletics with the “Fosbury flop”, the innovative style that led him to be Olympic champion in Mexico 1968 and that the world uses today. “I was already practicing backjumping in high school and everyone was laughing at me,” he said in an interview.

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Dick Fosbury, Olympic champion who revolutionized high jumping 1920, died
Dick Fosbury, Olympic champion who revolutionized high jumping 1920, died

The world of athletics is mourning the death of American Dick Fosbury (76), who revolutionized high jumping with a new technique that allowed him to win the gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.

The confirmation of the death was made by his agent, Ray Schulte, in a statement on Instagram: “With a heavy heart I have to announce that my old friend and client Dick Fosbury died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday morning after a brief relapse of lymphoma... Dick will be greatly missed by friends and fans around the world. A true legend and friend to all”.

Fosbury revolutionized high jumping. “I was a child who couldn’t play sports, but I had to do something if I wanted to pass Physical Education and I dedicated myself to high jumping,” he acknowledged about his beginnings. He had his moment of glory in Mexico 1968. Until then, the techniques most used by jumpers were the scissor style or the ventral roller, but since the Oregon-born had a hard time, he decided to innovate and look for a new way to jump the bar: on its back.

The American began jumping at North Medford High School and after several years of improvement, the “Fosbury flop” led him to glory, to win the gold medal in Mexico with a jump of 2.24 meters, which allowed him to overcome his compatriot Edward Carutherns (2.22) and the Soviet Valentin Gavrilov (2.20). Fosbury went in search of the 2.29 to beat the world record held by the Soviet Valeriy Brumel with 2.28, but he didn’t succeed.

Not only did Fosbury not achieve the record with the innovative jump, but he never again managed to surpass the 2.24 that made him Olympic champion and he could not qualify for Munich 72. He retired. His method was sometimes questioned and was even considered dangerous due to alleged back injuries, but 28 of the 40 jumpers implemented it at the Olympic Games in Germany and today it is the one used by everyone in the world.

“My biggest regret was not being in Munich. Everyone said that this was a war of styles, but I was just envious. I’ve thought about that many times and I’ve always come to the same conclusion: they have more merit than me. Everyone who jumps with my style, imitates it or surpasses it, has had to adapt to it by working hard and I haven’t. I admire them because they have managed to climb higher, adapting to something with greater sacrifice than me”, explained the American in 1973 in an interview with Marca, at an exhibition at the INEF sports center in Madrid.

“The current popularity of my style is a wonderful reward for how much I had to put up with in the beginning with a style that nobody liked. I was already practicing backjumping in high school and everyone laughed at me, considering me a madman and some as a snob for going outside the known rules. Until I won 1968 in Mexico, moving to the category of hero,” said the then civil engineer and one of the members of the 1984 Hall of Fame.

His jumping technique revolutionized athletics and is now used by everyone.
His jumping technique revolutionized athletics and is now used by everyone.

The world of athletics was shocked by Fosbury’s death and one who gave his farewell to him was Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC): “He was always faithful to Olympic values and served the Olympic Movement in various capacities, including that of President of the World Olympics. He will always be remembered as an exceptional Olympic champion.”

The United States Athletics Federation (USATF) said after learning of the American’s death: “Our sport loses a true legend and an innovator. He invented the “Fosbury Flop”, was a gold medalist at the 1968 Games and was a lifelong supporter of athletes. The legacy of Fosbury will live on for generations to come.”

For its part, the International Athletics Federation (World Athletics) also “deeply” regretted the death of Fosbury and defined him as “one of the greats”.

After his retirement, in the interview with the newspaper en Marca in 1973, Fosbury acknowledged that he was not the first to perform the jump with which he revolutionized the sport and gave credit to Canadian Debbie Brill, who was only 15 years old when Dick became Olympic champion in Mexico.

“She was the first to jump like that in the world, or, at least, the first one we have news of. My school coach was the one who saw it and copied the style,” Fosbury confessed.

Brill was eighth at those 72 Munich Games that Fosbury could not attend and finished fifth in Los Angeles 1984. She was a Pan-American champion and still holds her country’s record with 1.99 meters.

Interview by Dick Fosbury for the newspaper Marca.
Interview by Dick Fosbury for the newspaper Marca.

“In a short period of time you will be able to jump... Wait a minute, I have to multiply. That’s so many feet. Well, very close to 2.60. As is the physical constitution of the man of our time, that is a height that is within his reach,” Fosbury predicted after his retirement.

We are still far from that mark, what’s more, the world record for high jumping is one of the oldest in athletics. The Cuban Javier Sotomayor established it in 1993 by breaking the bar by 2.45 meters, with the innovative “Fosbury flop”, which has not yet found a new revolutionary.

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