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What Is the Fosbury Flop?

Cuba's Javier Sotomayor used the Fosbury flop technique to jump 8 feet, 0.5 inches in 1993.
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The Fosbury flop is a jumping technique that is used in athletic high jump events. It was popularized by American high jumper Dick Fosbury, who used it to win the gold medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Since then, this technique has become the most common and most successful style of high jumping. The distinguishing characteristic of this technique is that the athlete goes over the crossbar backward and facing upward, with his or her body roughly perpendicular to the bar. This is much different from techniques that have the athlete going over the bar forward, facing downward or with his or her body mostly parallel to the bar.

The Basics of the Technique

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Unlike other techniques, in which the athlete uses a straight or angled run-up to the crossbar, the Fosbury flop has the high jumper taking a curved approach. As the athlete reaches the bar, he or she plants the outside foot — the one farther away from the bar — and thrusts upward and toward the bar with his or her back to the bar. After the athlete's head and shoulders have cleared the bar, the athlete arches his or her back to lower the head and shoulders below the bar as the pelvis begins to pass over it. At this point, as seen in the photo below, the athlete's pelvis is over the bar, but the head, shoulders and lower legs are all below the height of the bar. After the pelvis has cleared the bar, he or she kicks the lower legs up and over the bar before landing on his or her back — usually the upper back — on the large foam landing pad.

Advantages

The primary advantage of this technique comes from the arch in the athlete's body as he or she passes over the bar. With the head, shoulders and lower legs all below the height of the crossbar, the athlete's center of mass is actually below the bar. Raising the body's center of mass takes energy, so keeping the center of mass below the bar means that the athlete can clear a higher bar without using as much energy as it would take to raise his or her center of mass over the bar.

Some other advantages of this technique are based on the curved approach, which allows the athlete to have a faster run-up and to more easily get lower and jump off a bent leg, both of which help him or her to jump with more power. The other advantage, which some analysts have suggested is the technique's greatest advantage, is that it is much easier to learn than other techniques that require even more coordination of movements and precise timing. There is some evidence that other techniques might allow some people to jump higher, but because of the ease of learning and executing the Fosbury flop, all other high jumping techniques had become virtually obsolete by the late 20th century.

The Fine Points

There are several small details that can make a high jumper who uses the Fosbury flop more successful. Several of these details involve the approach, including the exact number of steps taken, the placement of the feet and the jumper leaning away from the crossbar for the final three or four steps. The movement of the arms also can affect the jump, and many coaches recommend swinging both arms upward during the jump, with the lead arm then being extended over the bar in the direction of the athlete's flight. As the athlete's pelvis passes over the bar, the lower legs should be kept as low as possible, and the feet should be pulled backward toward the upper body, which increases the arch of the athlete's back. The following video provides a short tutorial and slow-motion breakdown of the technique.

Other Techniques

Before Fosbury's technique was introduced, the most popular and most successful jumping styles were the Western roll and the straddle. Earlier techniques, such as the scissors, involved the athlete lifting one leg over the bar at a time while in the air. In the Western roll, the jumper clears the bar on his or her side, with the front leg tucked into his or her body. An athlete using the straddle technique clears the bar with his or her body parallel to the bar or slightly head-first and the chest facing downward.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics, 31 of the 32 competitors — all but Fosbury — used the straddle technique. By the next Summer Olympics, in 1972, almost one-third of the competitors had switched to the Fosbury flop. A decade later, almost every elite high jumper in the world was using Fosbury's technique, and the use of other techniques continued to dwindle.

Innovation

Fosbury began practicing this jumping method as a 16-year-old high school sophomore after having trouble consistently performing other techniques. A few other high jumpers had experimented with using similar techniques before this time. Fosbury, however, developed his particular technique without knowledge of anyone else having used it.

One development that allowed for this type of technique was the use of foam landing pads or the use of pieces of foam in the landing pit. Until the 1960s, high jumpers landed in sand, sawdust or wood chips — typically landing on their hands and feet, if everything went well. If a high jumper had landed on his or her upper back in a pit of sand, sawdust or wood chips, there was a high probability of injury. The switch to foam landing pads allowed athletes to safely land on their backs, which permitted a backward jumping technique to be developed.

Although his high school coach doubted that this unusual technique would help Fosbury and he often was mocked for using it, Fosbury began having success with it. During his junior year, Fosbury broke his high school's record with a jump of 6 feet, 3 inches (1.9 m). A year later, he finished second in the Oregon high school state championship meet by clearing 6 feet, 5.5 inches (1.97 m).

As Fosbury continued having success with his technique, including at Oregon State University, he drew the attention of the media, track and field coaches and other athletes. His jumping style came to be known as the Fosbury flop. Despite the attention and his success, his technique was mostly a curiosity until 1968, when Fosbury reached his greatest heights — literally.

Striking Gold

In June 1968, Fosbury won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I outdoor high jump championship. In September of that year, he won the event at the United States Olympic Trials. A month later, at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, he set the U.S. and Olympic records with a jump of 7 feet, 4.2 inches (2.24 m) to claim the gold medal. The following video shows Fosbury's gold medal-winning jump as well as the straddle technique used by the silver and bronze medalists, Ed Caruthers of the U.S. and Valentin Gavrilov of the Soviet Union, respectively.

The Olympic event was broadcast worldwide on television, so many high jumpers and coaches were able to see Fosbury's flop in action for the first time. Soon, athletes around the world were practicing the technique. Many of them were unable to use it effectively at first because it was a such a drastic change for them. Others quickly adopted the technique, and it became more and more common over the next 10 to 15 years, until virtually every high jumper was using it.

Higher and Higher

Fosbury's gold medal-winning jump at the Olympics did not break the world record, which had been set at 7 feet, 5.75 inches (2.28 m) by the Soviet Union's Valeriy Brumel in 1963. The first athlete to set the world record while using Fosbury's technique was Dwight Stones of the U.S., who jumped 7 feet, 6.55 inches (2.30 m) in 1973 to break fellow American Pat Matzdorf's world record of 7 feet, 6.16 inches (2.29 m). Stones broke his own world record twice in 1976.

The world record has been broken more than a dozen times by jumpers who used Fosbury's technique. As of 2011, the last world-record holder who did not use it was the Soviet Union's Vladimir Yaschenko, who used the straddle technique to jump 7 feet, 8.13 inches (2.34 m) in 1980. Fosbury's technique was used by Cuba's Javier Sotomayor's to jump 8 feet, 0.5 inches (2.45 m) in 1993, which was still the world record as of 2011 and can be seen in the following video.

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