Competing in front of 80,000 spectators at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Oregon State University’s Dick Fosbury put on a spectacular performance in the high jump.
Fits of laughter filled Estadio Olimpico Universitario while the relatively unknown 21-year-old civil engineering student sailed over the high jump bar in his unique, backward style.
It startled them, surprised them and then, it amazed them.
Fosbury cleared 7 feet, 4¼ inches to win the gold medal in a performance that changed his sport forever.
“It started from Day 1, when I got back to Oregon State and fans started to tell me that I was going down in history and what I’ve done was phenomenal,” said Fosbury, who’s now 67. “The thing is, it took a generation to adopt as being proven as a technique that you can use, so it was gradual. It never ceases to amaze me because I still get recognized for something that I did, what — 46 years ago. And so, it’s still surprising to me.”
Fosbury started to develop his unique high-jumping technique before he ever arrived on the Corvallis campus. The flop’s genesis dates back to his high school days.
Fosbury was using the scissor technique when he joined the Medford High team, coached by Dean Benson, in 1963. Coaches tried to steer him away from the antiquated technique toward the Western roll, also known as the straddle.
“I felt I was falling behind, so out of desperation and frustration, toward the end of the season, that’s when I went to Dean and asked him for permission to go back to the scissors,” Fosbury said. “He said ‘don’t give up, it’s your choice.’”
Fosbury went back to the scissors and, during a meet at Grants Pass, reached a personal-best height of 5 feet, 4 inches. As the bar was raised, Fosbury began to drop his shoulders and lift his hips and butt. By the end of the meet, he had cleared 6 feet.
“I knew I had to change my body position, and that’s what started first the revolution, and over the next two years, the evolution,” Fosbury said. “During my junior year, I carried on with this new technique, and each meet I continued to evolve or change, but I was improving. My results were getting better.”
Fosbury continued to clear the bar at increasing heights, and his coaches no longer tried to stop him.
“Quite honestly, there was no model, nothing similar to what I was doing,” Fosbury said. “They really didn’t have anything to help guide me, only to encourage me.”
As a senior, Fosbury broke the school record, placed second at state, won a regional meet and then a national meet in Houston.
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Oregon State’s new track coach, Berny Wagner, was a Stanford graduate who had success coaching jumpers at the high school level. He devised a plan that had Fosbury working on the Western roll in practice while continuing with the flop in freshman meets.
“He assumed that I would supersede what I was doing with my flop,” Fosbury said. “He allowed or encouraged me to use my technique in meets so I could score points for the team.”
The following season as a sophomore, Fosbury broke the school record by clearing 6-10 in his first varsity meet.
Wagner abandoned his plan of practicing the straddle.
“After the meet, Berny came up to me and said, ‘that’s enough.’ That was the end of Plan A, on to Plan B,” Fosbury said. “He would study what I was doing, film it and even start to try to experiment and teach it to the younger jumpers.”
By the spring of 1968, Fosbury was attracting national attention with his unique style.
He won back-to-back NCAA titles along with the Olympic gold medal.
“I remember watching black-and-white TV when Fosbury jumped,” said OSU track coach Kelly Sullivan, who was 11 years old at the time. “It was such a national story leading up to the Olympics, and then he actually won the gold medal.”
The Fosbury Flop became commonplace within 20 years after its introduction.
“The last straddler at the elite level was at the Olympic Games in 1988, when a decathlete jumped the same height I did in 1968,” Fosbury said.
Fosbury continues to contribute to track and field with his youth clinics around the country. He serves as vice president of the U.S. Olympians Association and established a chapter in Idaho.
At OSU, he serves as chairman of the fundraising committee that oversees construction of the Whyte Track and Field Center and efforts to reintroduce a full program that includes men.
“From my perspective, I have a responsibility to give back to the sport. I really love it,” Fosbury said.