SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Fifty years ago today, a lanky college student from Oregon won the high jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and revolutionized his sport. NPR's Tom Goldman tells us the story of the Fosbury Flop.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: For a man who professes to live in the moment, Dick Fosbury has spent this week deep inside the past on a tour commemorating the day he confounded the sports world.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The location was Mexico City. All was normal until a gangly 21-year-old civil engineering student in mismatched running shoes did this.
GOLDMAN: Fosbury jumped, shockingly, with his back to the bar, his head and shoulders clearing first, his legs and feet trailing - you know, the way every serious high jumper does it now. But he was the first to do it internationally. And Fosbury remembers the buzz that day in the Estadio Olimpico.
DICK FOSBURY: They had started to notice me jumping at the early heights, and then everybody was telling all of their neighbors watch this, watch this.
GOLDMAN: He remembers how he felt landing after clearing the winning height of 7 feet, 4 1/4 inches - an Olympic and American record.
FOSBURY: Amazement and joy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here he is, Mr. Dick Fosbury.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome back home.
GOLDMAN: Home is Medford, Ore. Naturally, it was one of the stops for Fosbury this week - a signing session for the new book "The Wizard Of Foz." High school classmates and hometown admirers showed up, including 84-year-old Cees Garrett. She cheered him on in Mexico City.
CEES GARRETT: And I'm thrilled to see you again.
FOSBURY: Yeah, thank you, glad we're still here.
GARRETT: I was one of the loudest voices when you made your jump (laughter).
FOSBURY: I understand and my mother nearly fainted.
GOLDMAN: Gold medals make everything right because, frankly, it seemed a bit wrong to Garrett and others when Dick Fosbury started that cockamamie backwards jumping.
GARRETT: We thought, this is really weird (laughter).
GOLDMAN: And why wouldn't they think it was weird? Back then, high jumpers used two styles both facing the bar. The jumper either hurdled the bar doing a scissor kick with the legs or rolled over the bar. Fosbury preferred the scissors, but in high school, it wasn't working. He was losing a lot. Then at a track meet in 1963, something happened. Knowing he kept knocking off the bar with his rear end, his body responded instinctively during a jump. Bob Welch wrote "The Wizard Of Foz" with Fosbury.
BOB WELCH: Dick is fond of saying I like to live in the moment, and that moment told him lift up your hips, pal.
GOLDMAN: Lifting his hips leaning back farther, Fosbury soared higher with each jump. It was the start of a two-year evolution that ultimately had Fosbury doing a full back layout over the bar while other high jumpers leaned forward. When it all came to fruition in 1968, the flop seemed to be a perfect metaphor for that tumultuous time, says Bob Welch.
WELCH: I mean, Dick, you know, literally turned his back on the establishment.
GOLDMAN: The reality is far more basic. His parents' divorce and younger brother's death left Fosbury desperately wanting to belong. He needed his track team.
FOSBURY: That was really a strong drive for me; first of all, stop losing and, second of all, to stay on the team. And if I was going to be different from everybody else, so be it, but that would be the way that I play the game.
GOLDMAN: Ultimately, high jumpers everywhere played along.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And here's American record holder, Chaunte Lowe, at 198 - oh, really fast there, and she's over, so she's the first to clear.
GOLDMAN: When four-time Olympian Chaunte Lowe started high jumping in the late 1990s, she was scared of the flop. Flying backwards seemed dangerous and unnatural. Luckily, she says, her coach convinced her otherwise.
CHAUNTE LOWE: I feel foolish looking back on it thinking that I could jump higher using a scissor technique when the Fosbury Flop has - I mean, it's allowed me to travel the world (laughter).
GOLDMAN: Lowe met Dick Fosbury in 2012 - a humble man, she remembers, who barely took credit for what he did for his sport. He does, however, take credit for his jump's name. He once saw a picture caption in the Medford newspaper describing him flopping over the bar like a fish flops on dry land. So when people asked him, what do you call this thing, he started answering the Fosbury Flop.
FOSBURY: It's poetic. It's alliterative. It's a conflict.
GOLDMAN: And a nice conflict it is when a flop is such a success. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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