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Dick Fosbury and Breakthrough Ideas


In the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games a twenty one year old American University student Dick Fosbury won the high-jump gold medal using a revolutionary jumping technique that he had called the 'Fosbury Flop'. The practice changed the sport forever and quickly became the dominant high-jump technique. By the 1972 Olympics 28 out of 40 competitors were already using the Fosbury Flop.

It's an excellent and well-known example of breakthrough innovation (thanks to Dave Tallon for the reminder), and we might simply think of it as arriving after a lightbulb-moment of inspiration and leave it there. But there are some interesting nuances to this story that are rarely mentioned but which also teach us a thing or two about how breakthroughs happen.

For a start, the application of knowledge from outside the immediate domain of the sport. For years leading up to the Mexico Games high-jumpers would use the 'straddle technique' to get over the bar where the jumper faces the bar as they go over with their legs straddling it. Fosbury was an engineering student and he used this knowledge to reinvent how the sport could work, working out that if he went over the bar head-first and backwards he could progressively arch his shoulders, back and legs so that as much of his body was kept below the bar as possible until the last second and the center of mass could actually pass under it. It was engineering know-how that won it.

The second truth is to recognise (as James Clear describes it) the importance of environment in enabling new possibilities to happen. Fosbury had been practicing his technique for a few years before the Olympics, all the way back to high school. Like most high schools in the early sixties, the landing pits on the other side of the bar were made of wood chips and sawdust which meant that you had to land in a certain way to avoid injury. Fosbury's school became one of the first to install one of the new foam landing pits which enabled Fosbury to experiment with a totally different technique that involved landing on his neck and shoulders. Interestingly he wasn't the only one at that time that was trying out going over the bar head first. A few other young jumpers including Debbie Hill (Canada's future Commonwealth Games champion) had been experimenting and making use of the new, safer foam landing pits. As James notes the environment in which the sport operated had changed markedly yet almost everyone was still following old patterns of behaviour.

Fosbury's new style came in for some criticism early on. One local newspaper called him the 'World's laziest high-jumper' and the world record holder Valery Brumel initially called it 'an aberration'. But he persisted. After his Olympics success Fosbury was widely expected to go on and beat Brumel's world record but it was never to be. He'd been given a choice by his university between concentrating on his civil engineering studies or high-jumping and he chose the former. But his win in Mexico changed the sport forever.  

Often, new technologies create new environments and new possibilities but behaviour remains stuck. It takes vision and belief to show the way, and prevent us from looking at the new through the lens of the old. 

Image: AlanSiegrist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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