A gangly 21- year old Civil Engineering student from Portland, Oregon, United States had arrived in Mexico City to test his new jumping technique at the Olympic level. He had been enjoying some success at the nationals, and had managed to qualify with the best jump of 2.20m. Dick Fosbury had found it difficult to master Western Roll and Straddle techniques, and had achieved only minor successes with the Scissors. But this jump style was not very efficient, and in desperate search for success, Fosbury ended up developing a unique way of jumping. This innovation not only fetched him Gold at the 1968 Olympics with a jump of 2.24m, but also revolutionized the discipline to an extent that in this time and age, no one jumps at major events in any other manner, but Fosbury’s. Fosbury Flops have now become the only way in which athletes do fly.
Rather than running straight towards the bar as was then the norm, and trying to clear his legs together , or in tandem, one after the other, Dick began to sprint diagonally, jumping backwards while curving his back, clearing the bar head-first, falling down on his head while kicking the legs upwards. Dick had realized that when he arched his back, his Centre of Gravity remained below the bar, unlike what happened in other jumps. This was immediately labelled as ‘fish flopping in a boat’, and Fosbury dubbed as ‘world’s laziest high jumper’. Despite this apparent ridicule, Fosbury took heart in the improving results, and further refined his technique. His approaching sprint gradually became more curved, J-shaped. The curve allowed him to rotate his hips, and provide more push upwards.
Of course, Dick was helped by the gradual softening of the landing surface. Since the beginning of the 1960s, wooden chips and saw dust surfaces began to be replaced firstly, by soft sand, and later by rubber foam, which made landing on the back, or even headfirst, a much safer tactic. While Dick Fosbury was the only athlete who did a flop in 1968, by 1972, 28 of the 40 high jumper Olympians did flops. 13 out of 16 finalists at Moscow 1980 jumped backwards. All, but a couple of Olympic medallists after 1972, have jumped using the Fosbury technique. The flop has been consistently refined over the years. Fosbury hardly used his arms for the pump and kept them glued sideways, but later floppers began to use the arm pump to push themselves higher. The genius of the Fosbury Flop lies in – a.) lowering the centre of gravity using arched back, and b.)effective conversion of horizontal velocity into vertical velocity and angular momentum by approaching the bar in a J-curve, which allows the body to be at a slightly acute angle relative to the ground while jumping.
It is to be noted that Fosbury’s personal best was 2.24m, which was quite less than the then World Record of 2.28m held by Valeriy Brumel of USSR since 1964 who had straddled away to glory. Fosbury’s major contribution was also that he had realized that with the increased height of the bar, the jumper need to take-off further away from the line. This allowed a high jumper more ‘flight time’ –i.e. led to him being at the top of his parabola when the hips crossed the bar, hence maximizing the performance. The first flopper to set the World Record was Dwight Stones of the US who cleared 2.30m. Still, Straddlers won the Gold medals at 1972 and 1976 Olympics. Even the WR in 1977-78, which was 2.35m, was held by Yaschencko, a straddler. Since then, the history of the high jump has only been about Fosbury Flops.
The 80s and 90s were dominated by a Cuban high jumper, Javier Sotomayor. He had established the Junior WR of 2.33m in 1984 itself, but Cuban boycotts of LA-1984 and Seoul-1988 made Sotomayor wait for the Olympic glory till 1992. He established the WR of 2.43m in 1988, and then broke the 8 feet barrier (2.44m) in 1989. He jumped 2.34m for Gold at Barcelona Olympics in 1992. In 1993, Sotomayor established a WR of 2.45m, which stands to this day. Sotomayor won a bronze at Sydney-2000, and twice won gold medals at the World Championships. Positive dope tests and bans marred the twilight of his career and ruined his reputation somewhat. When he retired, he had 17 of the 20 best high jumps in history to his credit, and had jumped above 2.40m, an incredible 24 times.
High Jump has always been a major track and field event, attracting lots of eyeballs. But at Tokyo 2020, the climax of the High Jump became a raging hit. Javier Sotomayor had backed the Qatari High jumper, the winner of the Worlds in 2017 and 2019, Bronze medallist at London, Silver medallist at Rio, Mutaz Essa Barshim (whose personal best is 2.43m) to win the Gold, and possibly knock off the World Record as well. His Italian competitor, Gianmarco Tamberi, had been phenomenal in 2015-16, but had to sit out of the Rio Olympics due to injury. There arrived a stage in the competition when Barshim and Tamberi were tied at 2.37m, and had failed in their three attempts to clear the Olympic Record barrier of 2.39m.
At that juncture, the official asked Barshim if the duo wanted to continue jumping (another jump-off)to break the deadlock?
“Can we’ve two Golds?”, asked Barshim.
“It is possible”, the official replied. Barshim wasted no time in hugging Tamberi, saying “History,my friend”.
The world then witnessed the Tamberi Show in which the Italian went ultra-exuberant with sheer ecstasy and joy. He jumped into the Qatari’s arms, then onto the track with a thud, rolled many a times and kept screaming throughout with highly exaggerated body movements. No winner at Tokyo 2020 celebrated with such joyous abandon. The High Jump Gold was thus shared between Qatar and Italy, and this magic moment was shared millions of times on the social media.
In the end, it is pertinent to ask two vital questions- When shall Javier Sotmayor’s record of 2.45m set in 1993 be broken? Shall it be broken by a high jumper using Fosbury Flops, or does this longstanding record of 28 years call out for some radical changes in technique?
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