Swimmer Michael Phelps isn’t an Olympic pioneer, although he has 22 medals including 18 gold. Nor can gymnast Larisa Latynina with 18 medals stake a claim.
Swimmer Michael Phelps isn’t an Olympic pioneer, although he has 22 medals including 18 gold. Nor can gymnast Larisa Latynina with 18 medals stake a claim. In the 120-year history of the Games, very few can be called pioneers.
Americans Dick Fosbury and Parry O’Brien certainly belong to the exalted category as they revolutionised the high jump and shot put respectively with their path-breaking styles.
Some athletes were reported to have used the head-first over the bar in the high jump before Fosbury but the technique gained global acceptance only after the American won an Olympic gold in 1968 using it. He cleared 2.24 metres, an Olympic record, for his only gold at the Games.
At the 1980 Olympics, all but three of the 16 finalists used the Fosbury Flop. Today every top jumper uses the Flop.
The effectiveness of Fosbury’s new style quickly made scissors and straddle (also called western roll) obsolete. Previously, high jumpers took off from the leg closer to the bar and they faced down while clearing the bar. Fosbury used the foot further from the bar for take-off after a curved run-up at high speed. More importantly, he went over the bar with his head first.
Physics explains why the Flop technique is more efficient than the previous ones. In the Flop, the jumper is able to lower his centre of mass below the bar, going higher in the process. In straddle, the centre of mass is above the bar along with the body of the jumper.
Fosbury said he wasn’t influenced by science. “I perfected the Flop by trial and error. Above all, I developed it out of frustration as I was the poorest jumper in my peer group. I primarily used it not to lose,” he added.
According to the American, the introduction of foam in place of saw dust at the 1964 Olympics helped his experiment in the next edition. Foam made landing safer in the Flop. Coaches gave the thumbs-down to Fosbury initially as they thought his method was awkward and dangerous. Safe landing and efficiency won them over as time progressed.
O’Brien, who won the shot put gold at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, had his back to the front of the throwing circle. He harnessed the momentum generated by the front leg’s kick during the half-turn to deadly effect. Top shot putters prefer the O’Brien glide over the spin or rotational technique today.