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How a flop turned Fosbury into a legend

Flopping is synonymous with failure but the eponymous Fosbury Flop was so successful that it revolutionised the high jump.

Flopping is synonymous with failure but the eponymous Fosbury Flop was so successful that it revolutionised the high jump. No sportsman in history has made an impact comparable to Dick Fosbury.

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The American redefined his event so dramatically when he won Olympic gold in 1968 that he killed off every other jumping technique.

There used to be the scissors, western roll, eastern cut-off, and straddle, but since Fosbury revealed his back-first approach at the Mexico Olympics, there has been no lobby for any alternative. He's recounted often how coaches attempted to outlaw the Flop, and it was challenged by doctors on safety grounds. Fosbury was undeterred. Within a decade virtually every elite jumper flopped. A few, hardwired to the aesthetically pleasing straddle, lamented its passing but by 1980 the style was favoured by all but three Olympic finalists.

The Flop kept the centre of gravity some eight inches lower than prevailing methods. Fosbury won in 1968 with 2.24 metres. The world best then was 2.28m, by Russian straddle jumper Valery Brumel. Now it has been nudged to 2.45m by floppers, and has stood to Cuban Javier Sotomayor since 1988.

But whisper it. Fosbury wasn't first to go backwards. He experimented at a high school meeting in Oregon, in 1963. The name "Flop" was bestowed by a local journalist. Yet in May that same year, a Montana athlete, Bruce Quande, was pictured going over backwards at a high school meet. The photo, discovered in 2000, was published in Track and Field News.

Fosbury however, first brought it to world view, and he was in Glasgow this week, delivering an inspirational talk to the Bank of Scotland Talented Athlete and Development squads.

He was 21 when he improved by two centimetres for Mexico victory. A long-haired student with a headband in those days, he'd have looked more at home on Haight-Ashbury than a high-jump fan. His subject was civil engineering, and it's a seductive myth that he used this background to devise the Flop. The truth was more prosaic. He could not master the straddle. It evolved from scissors by intuition.

"It wasn't based on science or analysis or thought or design. It was all by instinct." It's a story he has told thousands of times, but the recovering cancer victim is happy to indulge us: "I had no ambition to change the event. I just felt I was different - we're all different - but I was different with my technique.

I did not realise this would change the event until it actually began to change . . . It was not the plan. It took a generation, perhaps, for transference as a universal style."

Young athletes in Glasgow on Wednesday were mesmerised when he showed footage of his victory in Mexico: all of Fosbury's rivals were using the straddle, a style now so redundant that they had never seen it.

He clearly relates to the acolytes. "I never met an Olympian, never met a world champion, or a professional athlete, when I was a young boy. I realised there's a drought of material."

So while running his own engineering company, he's spent 40 years attempting to fill that void. He is also president of the World Olympians Association, former competitors who promote dissemination of Olympic ideals: fair play, environmental protection, and work to counter doping, violence and intolerance, and support diversity and equality.

"I work on technique and training, but also storytelling. The perfect athlete hasn't been born yet. These kids don't understand that I lost a lot and won a little. But I learned how to adapt. I practised and trained, and learned from my mistakes to become successful. And that lesson translates into life."

He believes modern distractions have the same impact as when he was competing. "But the culture is different. We held sport in higher esteem, I think, than society does today. With Olympic sport, of course, there's criticism that we are too focused on certain aspects - too much media, too much money which has led to some negative effects, such as doping and temptations for athletes to cheat.

"But athletes have always had temptations to cheat . . . I was aware there was doping and aware it was strength athletes that were taking steroids." He recalled Mexico. "We had doping control, but they didn't test the high jumpers. The marathon runners were under the stand and they tested them, I presume for stimulants. It was primitive then.

It began in the 1950s and its use was still limited.

"The overwhelming question now is, Is that athlete doping?' Now we are all suspicious, but I think the sport is taking the right steps in cleaning up, making the penalties stiff enough for the athletes not to risk it."

He predicted in 1978 that someone would jump 2.50m "in my lifetime". That looked a bust a year ago when he was diagnosed with spinal cancer. "Lymphoma - stage one. It was a single tumour, and I had excellent doctors," he said. "They removed the tumour. I went through chemo in May and June, radiation in July.

I had a test done in January and I'm here today. My health is good.

"It's the worst thing I've ever gone through, but bad as it was, it was worse for my wife, Robin."

And so he waits to see his prediction fulfilled. "We're getting really close and I don't believe the limit is 2.45m . . . Somebody out there is capable of 2.50m." Running shorts Lee McConnell, Scotland's Commonwealth and European medallist, will have her first outing of the year in Manchester on Sunday.

She runs in a women's 150 metres at the BUPA Great City Games which features triple Olympic champion Usain Bolt over the same distance.

McConnell will line up in a four-woman heat which includes 2000 Olympic finalist Donna Fraser, Beijing Olympic 100m quarter-finalist Montell Douglas, and former Commonwealth and World 200m champion Debbie Ferguson of Bahamas.

The other heat includes Olympic and World 400m champion Christine Ohuruogu, and Beijing hurdles finalist Sarah Claxton.

So Scotland will miss the services of McConnell at Sunday's Loughborough International, though she is likely to run the 200m next weekend in the CAU Inter-counties event at Bedford.

The 400m place on Sunday goes to Fifer Gemma Nicol as Scotland take on England, Wales, BUSA, Loughborough Students, and a GB under-20 select.

There are some curious selections, i.e. several who are not best on current form. Notable among the omissions is Kilbarchan steeplechaser Conor McNulty who won comfortably at Wishaw on Sunday in 9:17. The athlete selected did not run that fast last year and does not appear to have raced a chase this year.

Strange, too, that four days after a seminar with Dick Fosbury, we cannot field a high-jumper.

And it's a sign of these straightened times that each of those selected will be paying £30 for the privilege of representing their country at Loughborough. Britain's oldest Olympian, Godfrey Rampling, was 100 yesterday. The father of actress Charlotte, he is last surviving gold medallist from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He ran the second leg of the 4 x 400m, helping Fred Wolff, Bill Roberts, and Arthur Brown to the title. Ricky Simms, race manager of Usain Bolt, says I should give the young man a break. The car crash in which the Jamaican triple Olympic champion was recently involved was at 1.30pm, and not on a night out, as I suggested. I'm happy to set that straight.

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