All sports evolve through a combination of individual skill and technological advancement. Tennis has gone from using the relatively heavy wooden racquet (1987 was the last year a wooden racquet was used by at least one player at Wimbledon) to the sleek, light graphite ones common today. No one swears by the wooden racquet anymore.
Pole vault poles have gone from hardwood to bamboo to fibreglass. Cycling, swimming, team sports have all benefited from research and development in their sport or have adapted from inventions elsewhere. I once held a bat used by Don Bradman, and wondered how he made all those runs — a 12-year-old today uses a bat that is far more advanced.
There is a famous photograph of the American high jumper Dick Fosbury going over the bar at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. He is wearing a white shoe with blue stripes on one foot and a blue shoe with white stripes on the other. Everything about that photograph says ‘innovation’. For this was the famous Fosbury Flop technique which revolutionised the event. Fosbury won gold, with an Olympic record of 2.24m. He didn’t set a world record — that was the province of other jumpers who used the same technique.
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One significant improvement had to be made before the Flop could become acceptable. And that was the replacing of the traditional pit of sawdust and wooden chips with foam rubber landing cushions. Without that, jumpers might have broken their necks.
The ‘Fosbury Flop’ was coined by a newspaper. Fosbury Flops Over the Bar, said a local newspaper in his hometown Portland after a schools meet. The heading in New York Times after his Mexico triumph was: Fearless Fosbury Flops to Glory, and the report began thus: “Fearless Fosbury is a 21-year-old senior at Oregon State University with a major in civil engineering, two bad feet, a worn-out body, an unbelievable style of high-jumping head first on his back, a habit of talking to himself in mid-air, and a gold medal and an Olympic record.”
This is how Fosbury is quoted as describing his style: “I take off on my right, or outside foot rather than my left foot. Then I turn my back to the bar, arch my back over the bar and then kick my legs out to clear the bar.”
With that success, out went the scissors kick, the Western roll, the Eastern cut off and other high jump techniques. The current world record holder, Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor (2.45m) remains the only man to have jumped over eight feet — the record was set in 1993 and is one of the oldest in athletics. He used the Fosbury Flop and cleared the height of the goalpost in football.
Fosbury who will live on in athletics history passed away on March 12, aged 76. No name has been so intimately associated with a technique in athletes as his was. The ‘Bolt Grin’, made famous by Usain Bolt finishing ahead of everybody else in the sprints is about temperament, not technique!