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In a more homespun era, sports annuals and magazines would carry fictional stories about great feats of athletic achievement.

Often they would be about an unconventional character who defied logic to trump the best in their field. Alf Tupper, for example, worked the night shift as a welder, or a variety of other jobs depending on the comic book in question; he lifted heavy objects during the course of his labour and had next to no sleep. Tupper's staple diet consisted of fish and chips and (in his appearances in variously The Rover, The Victor Book for Boys or even Scotland's own Sunday Post), he would succeed at everything he attempted whether winning a running championship or in his bid to break the world record for the mile. Often, of course, there would be a rebuke for some of his rivals who had previously poured scorn on Tupper for his unconventional methods.

The story of Dick Fosbury, who died on Monday, is one of those enduring tales that could have been sprung from those sepia-tinted pages of yesteryear.

When the American high-jump legend performed the Fosbury flop for the first time, it ended with him losing a bet. He struck a wager with his classmates that he could skip over the top of a chair but caught his legs on the back of it. Not only did he lose his bet but he broke his hand at the same time. Nevertheless, the Fosbury flop had been born and it would utterly transform a single sport in a way not seen in any other.

At 16, he employed the flop to some success in high school but by the time he had enrolled at Oregon State University, his coach suggested that he change back to the conventional jumping style. 

Prior to Fosbury, the received wisdom for executing a jump was to roll over the top of the bar. Fosbury found this complicated and struggled to perform it effectively and so – aided by the introduction of cushioned mats in place of the traditional sandpit as a landing surface – he returned to his backward flopping style.

A civil engineering student at Oregon State, his interest in mathematics played a part in his development of the technique. By using science, he came to understand that by arching his back over the bar, his centre of gravity remained unaltered.

It is commonly accepted that Fosbury was probably not the first high jumper to attempt to clear the bar by the method that he popularised but he was certainly the man who made a success of it.

At the Mexico Olympics in 1968 there were critics among his peers and their coaches who looked puzzled by his unorthodox style but, over the course of two days, Fosbury won hearts and changed minds.

He went through the qualifying rounds in Mexico – his only Games – without knocking the bar over. Then he battled compatriot Ed Carruthers for gold, eventually surpassing his fellow American when he cleared 2.24m for a new world record which Carruthers was unable to clear, much to the delight of a mesmerised crowd.

His method was not his only lasting contribution to the event. He was one of the first to cajole himself into making his jumps, often spending several minutes talking to himself before embarking on his run-up.

“I have a bad back,” Fosbury told the New York Times after his Mexico victory. “I lost a big patch of skin on the back of my left heel. Then I tripped on some stone steps the other day and strained a ligament in my right foot. I guess I use positive thinking. Every time I approach the bar I keep telling myself, ‘I can do it, I can do it’.”


What many had thought was a novelty act when Fosbury arrived in Mexico ended with him becoming one of the most popular athletes in the sport – and enshrined him as a true legend, a status that was recognised when he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1981. It was an object lesson for anyone who feels marginalised for going against the grain and a warning that running with the herd can sometimes lead you off a cliff.

“The current popularity of my style is a wonderful reward for how much I had to put up with in the beginning with a style that nobody liked,” Fosbury later recalled. “I was already practising backjumping in high school and everyone laughed at me, considering me a madman and some as a snob for going outside the known rules. Until I won 1968 in Mexico, moving to the category of hero.”

Four years later, he was out of the sport having set up his own civil engineering business. Not quite Alf Tupper's back-breaking work as a welder but a story to rival his greatest adventures nonetheless.