martes, 6 de marzo de 2012

The Fosbury Flop Revolution

Dick Fosbury, the man who changed the high jump event forever, with his revolutionary technique
              Nowadays we expect to see in high jump contests every competitor making a backwards takeoff in order to clear the bar. Every athlete uses this standard technique known as “Fosbury Flop” and it is the one every kid is taught at the athletic clubs. It seems it must have been like this since the dawn of humanity but it is not. Since the Olympic Games were restored back in 1896 we assisted to a succession of jumping styles: Scissors, Eastern cutt-off, Western roll, Straddle… The last one had been the dominant technique for nearly three decades. In the straddle or belly jump, the athlete clears the bar face-down, with the body stretched along the bar, relying in a fast run-up and a powerful lift of the outer leg. Especially the Soviet Union school got to master this intricate style, thanks to the knowledge of national coach Vladimir Dyachkov, who had studied films of the best high jumpers in the world for many years and incorporated for his own athletes every advantageous element which had been used during the 40s and the 50s, as for example to move the arms into backward position in the last steps of the approach, then threw them strongly forward and upward during the takeoff phase, accompanying it with a straight lead-leg kick. (1) Yuri Stepanov, using Dyachkov’s “dive straddle” broke the world record in 1957 and, in the following years, Robert Chavlakadze and Valery Brumel won the gold medal at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games respectively, upsetting American favourite John Thomas. Brumel was the ultimate straddle performer, thanks to his elaborated technique and a superior speed and strength, raising the world record to a more than respectable 2.28 height, on a dirt track and landing on a sawdust pit.  
            However the only inconvenient was this elegant technique took many years of physical and mental practice to achieve it. Dive straddle was perfection and not every jumper could handle such complicated execution. Richard Douglas “Dick” Fosbury was one of those athletes who had real troubles to dominate the standard jumping style of his time. Fosbury, born in Portland, Oregon, the 6th March 1947 was a lanky kid eager to make a name through sport or whatever activity. (2) Attending high school in Medford, he tried basketball and football without luck then turned to the track. Being 1,95m tall, high jump could be a good choice. Dick adopted the scissors style, jumping 5’ 4” (1,62m), but it was outdated ages ago and his coach Dean Benson endeavoured to teach him the straddle with little success. Maybe after all Fosbury had no especial talent and had to become another average man living an average life lost in the anonymous crowd of a big town. Yet he was all but a gregarious man. One of his High school team mates remembers "when everyone else would be joining a group, he would be off doing something on his own.” (3) Fosbury was independent and imaginative. If he could not find his way through tradition he would not have any problem in trying something different and it was what he did in a May afternoon of 1963, when Benson eventually relinquished in the penultimate meeting of the season.  The Medford sophomore reverted to scissors, relieved to clear again 5’ 4”. Anyway, has not been Iolanda Balas dominating so overwhelmingly the women's event for so many years with a scissors technique? However, when the bar was up to more challenging heights something unusual happened. Aiming to overcome the bar, Fosbury instinctively started to arch backwards while taking off, as in the Eastern cut-off, and at the same time lifting his hips up so his shoulders dropped in reaction.  Reclining his body even more as the bar was being raised higher, he eventually was completely flat on his back as he overcame 5’ 10” (1,78m). He had improved 16cm in a single day. “It was a total shock to everybody including myself," was quoted Fosbury. (3) In Dick’s junior and senior years his style evolved. He adopted a curved approach and instead of lying back from the scissors position, he went backward from the point of takeoff, going over the bar at a 45-degree angle leading with his shoulders, then at an ideal 90-degree one, clearing head-first. After ending high school winning the national junior championship with 6’ 7” (2,01m), Berny Wagner, new coach of Oregon State University, showed interest in him and he joined the establishment for an engineering career.    

Debbie Brill, the woman who pioneered modern high jumping

             Meanwhile in nearby Haney, a small town close to Vancouver, Canada, a 12-year-old country girl called Debbie Brill had arrived on her own, without ever hearing of Fosbury to the same jumping style, which was known by her coach Lionel Pugh as “Brill Bend.”(4) Understandably she was in shock when a friend told her he had seen someone else jumping her way. Debbie had grown in a natural environment which she loved. She had contributed with her parents and siblings to the build up of a wood house in Karnaka Creek, where they could swim and take boat rides seeking for beavers. And there were also cedar and hemlock trees which she liked to climb up and watch everything from there. "It is like living in the Wild West. I like things as they were in the old days. They seem more beautiful that way." (5) And as naturally as climbing trees she started jumping, at the scissors style, because she could not dominate straddle just like Fosbury, evolving quickly to the Brill Bend. The main difference seemed to be, instead of a curved approach, Debbie used to do a straight run-up, almost as straddlers, but with an unbelievable twist in the process. Little sister Corinne was bending with her but she did not make a career of it. The difference was Brill’s aggressiveness: while Corinne was playing with dolls her elder sister was doing so with trucks and beating up boys. (5)

              This simultaneous invention of a style for two teens who did not know each other, and furthermore the almost instinctive way it happened makes it wonder if there was really an invention at all. Both Fosbury and Brill evolved naturally from old scissor technique. Debbie only realised she was doing something different when someone pointed it out to her. Dick said he had never planned the progressive changes he was doing in his style. He did not find any motivation in jumping in training, without contenders or an enthusiastic crowd so he never did. Even in Mexico City, his coach had to ask him to practise at least once, because they came to the Olympics one month in advance and he was getting rusty, just passing his time having fun with fellow-javelin man Gary Stenlund. (3) Just jumping in competition had sense for Fosbury and it was the pressure of the challengers and the motivation of reaching new heights which made evolve Dick’s technique “inside of him”. In front of the scientific straddle method, Fosbury and Brill’s style seems the natural way of jumping and as such there were several precedents of it in track and field. Bruce Quande from Flathead County, Montana, had reportedly done it in 1959 but that kid lacked the determination and focus of Fosbury to go ahead with it. Also many years before, back in the 30s, several athletes, especially in Germany, had tried to jump backwards but at the time rules forbade to clear the bar head-first. Anyway, a sand or sawdust pit did not really encourage such kind of jumping, in which you would have risked your back or your neck. The newly introduced in the time of Brill and Fosbury foam-rubber mats would allow further development of the backward jumping. There was also the amazing case of tumbler Dickie Browning, who in 1954 went over 7ft 2in (2,18m), which was superior to the then existing world record, through the acrobatic combination of cartwheels, flip-flops and a back flip over the bar. His feat was not homologated by the IAAF, because of a two-foot takeoff but nevertheless it was included in the Guinness Book of Records. (6) (7) If we acknowledge the fact gymnasts usually execute backward somersaults in order to gain height we can understand how optimal Fosbury and Brill techniques are for track and field high jumping.     

Yuri Stepanov, first athlete from the Soviet "dive straddle" school who broke the high jump world record
                 Nonetheless spectators, journalists, coaches and other athletes were not really impressed by the innovative jumping techniques of teens Dick Fosbury and Debbie Brill. The Canadian girl went to compete to Norway in 1968, before the Olympic Games. She was so touched because Scandinavian landscapes remembered her home but her lovely trip ended up in an unfortunate memory when 8000 spectators roared with laughter as she started to do her bend, so she underperformed badly. Similar kind of experiences suffered Fosbury who more than one labelled as a snob. Fosbury was gaining attention, but more as a novelty than as the next new thing. In 1964 a photographer captured this craziness, and the shot went around the world, Des Moines to Johannesburg. WORLD'S LAZIEST HIGH JUMPER was the caption in one newspaper. A better caption, appearing under a staff photo in the Medford Mail-Tribune, was FOSBURY FLOPS OVER THE BAR. A reporter returned to the phrase in a meet story, saying Fosbury looked like nothing more than a fish flopping into a boat. The Fosbury Flop was born. (2)
            Again Berny Wagner, his coach in Oregon State University tried just like Dean Benson to make become his new charge “a true jumper,” telling him to abandon his crazy flop to learn the only valid jumping technique: straddle. An obedient Fosbury, who anyway did not want to be laughed again, embraced the style of Olympic champion Brumel with the result he went back from 6’ 7” to 5’ 6” in his freshman year. By the time Wagner was thinking about converting Dick in a triple jumper but when the trainee was given permission to resume with his flop he showed the validity of it. In his sophomore year Fosbury improved the Oregon State record to 6’ 10” (2,08m). By then he was gaining renown for his style and many promoters invited him to their meetings.  They did not care how high he jumped, just how much hype he could generate. And the press loved it. A prove of it a Los Angeles Times headline: BEAVER PHYSICS STUDENT TO SHOW UNUSUAL JUMPING FORM TODAY. Some said Fosbury’s performance was as exciting as a triple somersault off a flying trapeze without a safety net. (2) Notwithstanding in his junior year the jumper started to be accepted when he became the most consistent 7ft (2,13m) performer of the country. That 1968 year Fosbury won the NCAA, also the senior championships and eventually qualified for the Olympic Games in a contest in Lake Tahoe where all three men who booked their ticket for Mexico, Ed Caruthers, Reynaldo Brown and Fosbury improved their PBs to 7’ 3” (2,21m). The Mexico Olympic Games high jump final became a clash between those three Americans and Soviet Union representatives Valery Skvortsov and Valentin Gavrilov, who held the honour of their country in the absence of defending champion Valery Brumel, who could not recover from a motorcycle accident. Fosbury had often proved the more demanding the competition the more outstanding his performance was. In Mexico City the flop jumper delivered his most accomplished display of jumping ever, clearing every height until 2,22m in his first attempt. By then Gavrilov had been eliminated and the veteran Caruthers was the only other man in contention. With the bar raised to 2,24m, Fosbury won the final in his third try, achieving a new Olympic record. A legend was born.    

                 Dick Fosbury had not broken Valery Brumel’s world record but his amazing victory in Mexico, broadcasted by TV to every corner of the world served as a perfect showcase for his jumping style. The day after Dick’s triumph every athlete tried the Fosbury Flop. However, not everybody was converted. Very technical jumpers, which main quality was strength, stuck in the straddle, while others faster and more flexible than strong adopted the Fosbury Flop. While there was a division among the jumping elite, College kids all found fascinating Fosbury’s backward technique, which caused abundant complaints from fathers and public in general, arguing there furniture was being ruined and also they had a justified fear their sons and daughters were going to break their necks trying the new fashion. (8) They did not. Fosbury was out of shape and did not qualify for Munich Olympic Games. He would retire soon afterwards. He may not be considered the best jumper in history but without a doubt he has largely become the most influential. Usually we expect a technical innovation in sport to be the result of a thorough investigation of laboratories or a renowned coach. This time around was just the spontaneous innovation of an inspired teen, just an up-and-coming athlete using his genius and instinct of survival to keep him alive in a track and field contest. This is the biggest merit of this high jump revolution.
On the other hand, Debbie Brill took part still a junior athlete at her first Olympic Games in Munich 1972. Surprisingly the winner was another jumper still more precocious than her, West German Ulrike Meyfarth, who became the youngest gold medallist in track and field in the history of the Olympics with 16 years and 4 months of age. Meyfarth practised the Fosbury Flop in that final to beat straddle specialists Ilona Gusenbauer and Yordanka Blagoeva, also matching the Austrian athlete’s 1,92m world record, which had eventually broken the universal best of Iolanda Balas. Ulrike Meyfarth adopted Fosbury’s style but adding the new element of the single drive arm, instead of keeping her limbs flat parallel to the body like Dick. The creator of the modern jumping technique acknowledges this innovation, use of single arm or two-arm drive, along with the strategy of throwing the jumper’s head back to get a more extreme back arch, as the main improvements in the Fosbury Flop after his retirement. (9) Elsewhere, Yuri Tarmac recovered back the male title for Russia and straddle.
Watch Sara Simeoni vs Rosemarie Ackermann here

In Montreal there was a draw between the two schools of jumping but this time around Fosbury Flop took over the men’s competition, thanks to Polish Jacek Wszola, who upset Dwight Stones, the first record holder of the new style. Meanwhile, with Ulrike Meyfarth experiencing a long crisis of results, the female title went to straddler Rosemarie Ackermann from East Germany. The Soviet Bloc countries were the ones keeping tradition alive and from the foremost straddle powerhouse, the USSR, rose to fame an amazing youngster named Vladimir Yashchenko who refused to be taught in the Fosbury style, arguing his idol had always been Valery Brumel. (10) Dyachkov was called to form the hopeful jumper and the old master was in awe watching the capacity of his new charge, who was able to bring to perfection at 18 years of age, such intricate style as the straddle is. When the battle seemed largely won by backward jumpers, Volodya won the European championships and set in 1978, still being a junior athlete, world records both indoors (2,35m) and out (2,34m). Thus, with Rosie Ackermann as the first female over 2 metres the precedent year, straddle had recovered the records in both sex categories. Yashchenko was predestined to become the first man over 2,40m, but an injury forced him to retire from athletics even before reaching the age of a senior athlete and he would die at 40 a victim of cirrhosis. Fatality had finished up with his high hopes as it did with Valery Brumel's before. Can you imagine what a match between Fosbury and Brumel in Mexico could have been?  
With Yashshenko’s untimely retirement straddle lost its last hope. In Moscow Olympic Games, there were only half-a-dozen of survivors, against the overwhelming majority of Fosbury Flop practitioners. Wszola took Volodya’s record and Gerd Wessig improved it at the Olympics getting the better of the Polish. In the female category, Sara Simeoni, who had got the world record as well, won the title. Ackermann, out of the medals, said also goodbye to the athletic world. On the other hand, Debbie Brill, who had won the World Cup in 1979 and was in her best shape ever, lost her best chance of an Olympic medal, after Canada boycotted the Games. She would still break the world indoor record two years afterwards, flying to 1,99m and would compete in Los Angeles-84, where she ended up a praiseworthy 5th in a contest won by a reborn Ulrike Meyfarth. Only Taiwanese Liu Chin-Chiang used the straddle style in those Games. Some argue Fosbury Flop is a more efficient jumping technique but, 30 years after straddle disappeared, the current world record from men’s (Sotomayor’s 2,45m) is just 10cm more than what Yashchenko achieved being 18, and women’s (Kostadinova’s 2,09m) is just 9 centimetres better than the straddle best of Ackermann. Furthermore, they had not been beaten in 19 and 25 years respectively. Fosbury Flop triumphed because of its simplicity; it was easier to be taught and accessible for all kind of athletes. Nowadays, there is no coach left with the knowledge to form in the straddle technique those jumpers whose characteristics would make them optimal standard bearers of it. (11) Current high jumping remains standardised, without evolution and technically poorer than it used to be some decades ago.