When high jumper Dick Fosbury changed the game. Forever. 

Dick Fosbury of the USA demonstrating the Fosbury Flop. Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport
Dick Fosbury of the USA demonstrating the Fosbury Flop. Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport

The history of the Olympic Games is full of dramatic, emotional and beautiful moments that took place in finals. Every week, relive the most incredible finals you can remember on video. This week, we look back at the Mexico 1968 high jump competition. 

The deets

  • Men's high jump competition, Mexico 1968 Olympic Games
  • University Olympic Stadium, 19-20 October 1968

The background

It’s not often that an innovation comes along that changes a sport forever.

But that’s exactly what happened when Dick Fosbury took to the field at the Mexico 1968 Olympics.

Prior to the Games, the dominant high jump technique was the 'straddle' technique. It involved an athlete jumping face forward and twisting their body mid-air to navigate their way over the bar.

But the 6ft 4in tall (193cm) Fosbury had not had much success with the straddle technique. In fact, as a high school athlete, Fosbury had failed to even qualify for his local club team in the high jump event.

But instead of giving up, in 1963 Fosbury began working on a new jumping technique that would change the way athletes approached the sport from that time onwards.

It came to be known as the Fosbury Flop.

Jumping backwards off of the “wrong foot” and arching his body over the bar, Fosbury essentially turned the standardised jumping technique on its head.

And having qualified for the Mexico 1968 Olympics, the unknown Fosbury would soon have the chance to introduce his unorthodox new technique to the world.

Key moment

When the Olympic High Jump competition began, Fosbury was by no means a favourite for the gold medal. He was up against what Track and Field News had described as “the toughest field ever assembled to do battle for the Olympic title”.

But undeterred, Fosbury began going about his business, making each jump at the first time of asking.

By the time the bar was raised to 2.18m there were only five athletes left in the competition. Fosbury sailed over the mark on his first attempt.

Three jumpers remained at 2.20m (Fosbury, the USA’s Ed Caruthers and the USSR’s Valentin Gavrilov), and all three made the height at the first time of asking.

At this point, Fosbury was guaranteed a medal. But what colour would that medal be?

At 2.22m, Gavrilov exited the competition, failing to make the height after three attempts. Once again, Fosbury sailed over first time.

Finally, with only Fosbury and Caruthers left in the competition, the bar was raised to 2.24m - the Olympic record height.

On his third attempt, Fosbury arched his back and flipped his legs over the bar to secure the the Olympic gold medal.

History had been made, and with it the high jumping rulebook had been completely rewritten.

Fosbury Revolutionises High Jump in Mexico 1968
04:23

The outcome

Few people in history have had the impact on a sport that Fosbury had that October in Mexico.

By the 1972 Olympics in Munich - a competition Fosbury failed to qualify for - 28 of the 40 high jump competitors had adopted the Fosbury Flop, and the last ever time the straddle jump technique was seen at an Olympics was at Seoul 1988.

With the Olympic triumph in Mexico as his greatest achievement, Fosbury disappeared from the athletics world, but not without leaving an indelible mark on the sport. In 1993, he was elected to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Fosbury himself had this to say about the technique that revolutionised the sport of high jumping:

“I believe that the flop was a natural style and I was just the first to find it.”

And with Tokyo 2020 only a year away, the high jump competition is sure to be dominated by athletes practising a technique that bears the Fosbury name.