No, I don't do the Flop," says Oregon State High Jumper Steve Kelly resignedly. "I'm just classical."
The one who Flops is his illustrious teammate, Olympic gold-medalist Dick Fosbury, who, with allusions to the teachings of Confucius and Lao-tzu, disclosed last weekend that he is going to quit Flopping for six weeks, because the spirit has stopped moving him. Fosbury belongs to no traditional school of jump. He doesn't think about form. "I don't even think about the high jump," he says. "It's positive thinking. I just let it happen." Backward. It may be a modern classic.
Kelly is a practitioner of the time-honored straddle. That is, after a short, springy run he kicks his strikingly muscled outside leg straight up, ascends after it, stretches out face down along the bar and shifts, swivels, alley-oops and finagles himself up and over, arm by arm, hip by hip and leg by leg. By contrast, Fosbury, who has markedly skinny legs and doesn't have, according to his coach, "exceptional spring, strength or speed," takes the more instinctual approach (see below).
In detail, Fosbury charges up from slightly to the left of center with a gait that may call to mind a two-legged camel, hooks to the right at the last moment, plants his outside (or right) foot parallel to the bar, pushes off with "the action of a screw," as he says, so that his back turns abruptly to the bar and, ideally, rises seven feet and change into the air. Then, cocking an eye over his shoulder at the bar, he extends himself like a slightly apprehensive man lying back on a chaise longue that's too short for him and finally kicks his legs up—and falls flat on his back.
The style is backward, but it may be avant-garde. It defies tradition, but it could be the way the Lord meant man to high-jump—with sufficient cushioning. A "back layout," or just "my style," is what its inner-directed author prefers to call it, but to the Oregon State Sports Information Bureau, to the publicists of Madison Square Garden (where Fosbury went out at 6'10" in the Millrose Games last Friday night before announcing that he was withdrawing from six forthcoming meets because "I know I've got it in me but I'm not getting at it") and to little boys jumping backward over couches in living rooms around the country, it is known as the Fosbury Flop.
The first person to call it that was a sportswriter on the Mail Tribune in Medford, Ore. (pop. 29,000) where Fosbury—the son of a truck sales manager and a secretary—grew up and where he was recently welcomed back from the Olympics with the first ticker-tape parade in the town's history. "I was really surprised to see so many people come out," Fosbury recalls. "None of the buildings were tall enough for the ticker tape to reach the street, but...."
The Flop developed, then, in Medford, and it is important to realize that it evolved gradually and naturally, like common law or the mammal. "You'll read that Fm a gymnast," says Fosbury. "You'll read that Fm a physicist and that I sat down one day and figured out a better way to jump. You'll read that I ran up and tripped one day and fell backward over the bar." He shakes his head. In fact, he isn't a gymnast or even, say, a diver or a trampolinist. He used to be in civil engineering but he gave that up this year for less technical studies, such as an introductory course in Eastern religions, which only served to confirm his mystical conception of his event. And he didn't stumble into going over backward, although he acknowledges, readily, that "I didn't change my style. It changed inside me."
To trace this uncommon metamorphosis, we must go back to the fifth grade, where Fos, as he is known, became a high jumper. He went out for grade school track and found, by a process of elimination, that high jumping was what he could do—because he was tall and willing to fall from heights even then. (Now he is 6'4" and a bony 185.) His original impromptu method was the scissors—which Berny Wagner, his coach at OSU, describes as "just natural, like a kid jumping over a fence, sitting up. It's not good because your center of gravity is too high." So first Fosbury's grammar school and then his high school coach labored to teach him the more elaborate and efficient straddle. He learned it but he never got the rhythm, and it didn't carry him very high. Then, in the course of a momentous meet when Fosbury was 16, he reverted to the scissors. As a straddler he had never jumped higher than 5'4". Scissoring, he went higher and higher—and a strange thing began to happen. "As the bar got higher, I started laying out more," he recalls, "and pretty soon I was fiat on my back." It wasn't the Flop yet—he was still carrying most of his body over the bar at once instead of crossing at right angles—but it was backward and a style all his own, and suddenly he was doing 5'10".
By his junior year Fosbury's back was intersecting the bar at a 45° angle and he was clearing a little more than six feet. By the end of his senior year he had just about attained the pure 90° angle Flop. And nobody much cared. "Everybody just thought," Fosbury recalls, " 'It's good to look at, it's pretty funny and everything, but he'll never do anything.' "
But when Fosbury won the National Junior Chamber of Commerce's Junior Championship meet in 1965, the summer after he graduated, Flopping 6'7" into a pit of shavings, Wagner signed him to a letter of intent. Fosbury was planning to go to OSU anyway, and no other school ever showed any interest in him.
In college he tried once again to tamper with nature and learn the straddle. Weaning him from the Flop was Wagner's idea, but Fosbury agreeably complied. "I wanted to be a good high jumper," he explains, "and I knew I couldn't be a good high jumper backwards." So, while continuing to Flop in competition, he worked on straddling in practice, and he got to where he could go all of 5'10" that way. "There was a time," says Wagner, "when I considered making a triple jumper out of him." (Since the world is probably not ready for the backward triple jump, and it is somehow hard to imagine a forward Fosbury, it is a good thing that notion was not pursued.) But then one summer day, when he was 19, and while Wagner was filming the Flop out of curiosity, Fosbury cleared the bar, which was set at 6'6", by a good six inches attired in a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts. "That," says Wagner, "was when I first thought he was going to be a high jumper."
Fosbury forsook the straddle for good, did 6'10" in his sophomore year and then, last season, as a junior, became the most consistent seven-footer in the nation. He still wasn't expected to win an Olympic medal but he took to topflight competition like a man who has never reflected on the terrible pun inherent in "Flop." Fosbury had to jump 7'3", his best up to that time, to make the U.S. team, and at Mexico City he reached his apogee—7'4¼ ", an Olympic and American record, only 1½ inches short of Valery Brumel's world mark—and became, like another late starter, a household word.
Men 20 years his senior (Fosbury is 21) now come up to him in restaurants, blurt, "I saw your feat on television...." and then stand there speechless. Last week, newspaper ads for the Madison Square Garden Invitational, at which a dozen Olympic athletes will compete (but not the dispirited Fosbury) pictured him in midair with the caption, "See Olympic Champion Dick Fosbury Jump the 'Fosbury Flop.' " And now, too, there has arisen what is known as the Fosbury Phenomenon (or Fenomenon)—which may be summed up in two questions: "Will the Flop revolutionize high jumping?" and "Will it cause the cream of America's young manhood to break their necks?"
The answers are "Maybe" and "Probably not." As it happens, there are two other jumpers, both female—a German girl whose name Fosbury has forgotten and 15-year-old Debbie Brill of Vancouver—who lay claim to having Flopped independently, by going through the same process as Fosbury. An un-calculated but much greater number of young folks started jumping backward derivatively—after seeing Fosbury on TV. Some of these are impressionable boys whose parents are now writing Fosbury to complain that the Flop is ruining their furniture. Others are high school and lowly college jumpers, many of whom are, as they say in the self-improvement ads, getting dramatic results. Track coaches are divided in their opinions as to whether the style is revolutionary, but several are known to be working with unpolished boys whom it might transform. Wagner is instructing three fledgling OSU jumpers in the Flop and he has been accepting invitations to expound it at clinics. "You can teach it to a 5'6" jumper, and in two weeks he will be going 5' 10"," Wagner says. "Of course, it may just be a shortcut to mediocrity."
But the fact that Fosbury himself seems to possess no exceptional powers besides that of invention ("I have a discus thrower," says Wagner, "who can jump-reach higher than Dick") suggests that the style may be of general value. Undoubtedly, it exposes a minimum of the body to the bar at any one time. What you have crossing the bar, in fact, is an orderly progression of cross sections. "Man is bilaterally symmetrical," notes Wagner, "and with this style both arms and both legs are doing the same thing, and the body goes over in a straight line. It's simpler in the air." It is also more fluid in the pivot—Fosbury is able to run harder at the bar and decelerate less as he nears it than most jumpers. And it may be more powerful from the ground. "When gymnasts want to get real high at the end of a routine," Wagner points out, "they turn around and jump backward. It's possible that you get a fuller extension of the quadriceps [front thigh] muscle that way and a better use of the heel-and-toe flexion. It just may be that the human mechanism goes up more effectively backward."
But then there is the question of safety, which has led some observers to urge that the Flop be banned. In fact, a Dr. J. T. O'Hanlan of Waynesboro, Va. has already written an anti-Flop article for the Virginia Medical Monthly. The style is all right for Fosbury, says Dr. O'Hanlan, with the special "pits"—actually three-foot-high pads—he jumps into, but the average young jumper experimenting with the style is liable to suffer severe vertebral damage. A man who phoned Wagner recently put it more strongly. "Why don't you stop that kid?" he said. "He's going to kill my boy."
But Dr. O'Hanlan's thesis, though it is not to be dismissed lightly, rests on at least three false assumptions, aside from his impression that Fosbury's name is Bill. The first is that "most high jumpers...land on all four extremities." In fact, most of them often land on their backs, whatever style they use. Non-Floppers frequently appear, however, to land with more of a roll and less direct force. The second is that Fosbury falls on the back of his neck, flexing it sharply onto the chest. In fact, he lands flat on his back and shoulders. The third is that he is able to survive only because he comes down on "an expensive air-filled rubber bladder, peculiar to the Olympics." In fact, at Oregon State he lands on the school's homemade pad of foam rubber sewn up in canvas. Fosbury doesn't even like air-filled pits. "They go 'Baroomp!' all around you when you land," he says. In meets he comes down on the standard foam-rubber Port-A-Pit, used in the Olympics—and onto which pole vaulters fall on their backs from heights of 17 feet. The Port-A-Pit is too expensive for most schools, but Wagner says that, because of the danger of jumping any which way, every high school should be required to have some kind of foam pit. And any team, he says, can make its own with scrap foam for $300.
So the case for abolition is shaky, although the AMA's Committee on the Medical Aspects of Sports has taken a look at the Flop. But Wagner, Fosbury and everyone else agree that anybody who Flops into sawdust, shavings, mattresses or sand is foolhardy. In point of fact, Fosbury himself developed his style going into shavings. But one day, when he was 16, and experimenting with the proto-Flop, he awoke unable to get out of bed. He had spent the previous day cutting up logs for the county, which entailed a lot of bending over, but an examination revealed two compressed vertebrae—a condition that probably stemmed from jumping. The first doctor he saw told him he would never jump again. He went to another doctor, who said the damage was already done and wouldn't get worse. Fosbury went back to landing on those vertebrae, and they haven't bothered him since. He suffered his only other serious jumping injury in his fraternity house, when he was challenged to a chair-jumping contest. The challenger cleared the chair impressively. Says Fosbury, "I stood there and got all psyched up and started swinging my arms and I hit the chair with my hand and broke a bone in it. Then I cleared the back of the chair but landed in the seat. So I lost."
The Flop has also been criticized on grounds, more or less, of taste. "It was the spectacular nature of the 'back-side-first' jump that drew the attention of the TV audience to Fosbury, not his performance," scoffs Dr. Ernst Jokl, head of the Exercise Research Laboratories at the University of Kentucky, who observed the Olympics for UNESCO. "Let me quote St. Augustine: The public is an ass.' "
Oddly enough Fosbury, though he would not likely be concerned or impolite enough to put it so bluntly, might well go along with St. Augustine. He does like roaring crowds, because they psych him up, and so he doesn't mind that he is likely to be singled out even during warmup jumps and sometimes cheered when he misses. But Fosbury doesn't care for some of the more intimate aspects of celebrity. He skipped the traditional gold-medalist's press conference in Mexico City and wearies, understandably, of being asked over and over and over how he Flops. "I'm just not the kind of guy who wants people to come up out of the blue and start talking," he says. And he dislikes being plagued for autographs. "Whenever kids start flocking around, I really get up tight," he says. "I try to get out of there as fast as I can. I'm not that kind of guy."
He is the kind of guy, however, who catches people's fancy, even when he is standing stock-still on the ground. For one thing, he looks rather refreshingly unlike an athlete. (For the record, he is a fill-in hurdler at OSU, he sat on the bench as a high school basketball player and he gave up his career as a "really scrawny" high school defensive end—"just when I had made third string"—after receiving a concussion and losing three front teeth on the helmet of teammate Bill Enyart, who went on to become Earthquake Enyart at Oregon State.) If you were to encounter Fosbury throwing a paper route, even in his track suit, and you didn't know who he was, you wouldn't necessarily suspect he was being wasted. But at a track meet, walking about in huge (size 12½) white shoes, his black socks creeping down, his head thrust forward and his arms dangling, he is an inspiration to everyone who moves around a little funny but would still like to be athletic.
Another aspect of fame he relished was being on the Johnny Carson show. Fosbury slipped on the studio floor trying to demonstrate the Flop, so the bar was lowered to 5'9", which he could have cleared classically. Nonetheless, he had a good time talking to Carol Burnett, jumping with Bill Cosby and Carson (who impressed him with his "remarkable condition" by Flopping four feet without a running approach) and seeing Raquel Welch up close.
But after mingling with the stars, Fosbury was glad to get back to Corvallis, Ore., almost half of whose population of 29,000 is the Oregon State student body and almost all of whose streets are either numbered or named after the Presidents up to Grover Cleveland. Thither he returned last weekend, after a final sub-par performance in Portland, to study Confucius and to let nature take its course. Since the Olympics he has cleared 6'10" only once in six meets and two TV shows. He had four more meets scheduled for the next two weekends—for instance, he was to jump in New York Friday and in Los Angeles Saturday—but, as he said, "I was grinding myself down." Over the objections of Wagner, whom he told, "I'll do anything to stop jumping—I'll go sprain my ankle," he has become a temporary dropout. He plans to work out four times a week as usual—lifting weights for two hours Mondays and Wednesdays (he does half squats with 325 pounds), hopping stairs for two hours Tuesdays and Thursdays and doing some light running, basket shooting and watching other people shoot baskets. No jumping. "Every other jumper," he says, "has to keep working on his style, but I only jumped five or six times in practice all last year. I know exactly what I'm doing, even though I don't realize all the things I do."
Off his form but still unmistakably Flopping, Fosbury comes down hard on his pivot foot, abruptly turns his back to the bar as he ascends, keeps one eye peeled as he starts to stretch out over the top, kicks his legs up and, looking unusually ragged, begins his descent, ultimately landing on his celebrated back on a cushion of three feet of foam.
Fosbury stands near his house in Corvallis.