Dick Fosbury, a gangly civil engineering student who shocked his peers, delighted sports fans and started a revolution in competitive high jumping with his backward leaps, died on Sunday at a nursing facility in Salt Lake City. He was 76.
The cause was lymphoma, a spokesman announced on Instagram.
Fosbury’s claim to fame was a signature jumping style: the “Fosbury Flop.” With a running start at a raised bar, he launched himself back first, seemed to hover for a moment parallel with the ground, and landed approximately on the back of his neck.
The technique has been compared to a corpse being pushed out of a window. Like Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, Fosbury’s flopping struck many onlookers as residing somewhere between a physical feat and a joke. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the crowd oohed, aahed and laughed watching Fosbury compete.
But the last laugh was his:
The high-jump bar kept being raised, and Fosbury kept clearing it. He finally executed a Fosbury Flop at 7 feet 4¼ inches — earning him not just the gold medal, but an Olympic record at the time.
“Even Fearless Fosbury is amazed,” The New York Times reported after his victory. “‘Sometimes I see movies,’ he says, ‘and I really wonder how I do it.’”
Within a few years, the Fosbury Flop was the standard method of elite high jumping. (The current Olympic record is held by Charles Austin, who Fosbury Flopped 7 feet 10 inches at the 1996 games in Atlanta.)
More broadly, the Flop set a standard for the kind of innovation that can transform a human endeavor. The Times has written about “the Dick Fosbury of ski jumping,” of racewalking, of golf, of angler fishing and of the game show “Jeopardy!” When Piaget introduced a line of watches advertised as a “daring departure,” the company made Fosbury its spokesman.
Richard Douglas Fosbury was born in Portland, Ore., on March 6, 1947. His father, Doug, drove a logging truck, and his mother, Helen (Childers) Fosbury, was a concert pianist and secretary. He grew up in Medford, in southern Oregon.
In later years he often said that at the start of his high-jump career, in high school, he was the worst jumper in his school, in the school’s conference and in all of Oregon. He was seemingly not even a gifted athlete, having failed to make his school’s football and basketball teams.
In the high jump, he initially used the old-fashioned scissors style, in which the athlete runs at the bar and hurtles over in a roughly sitting-up position, kicking one leg after the other over the bar.
One day, Fosbury felt inclined to experiment with a new method: trying to clear the bars with his hips. The Flop began coming to him naturally. Coaches were not so sure: They would check the rule books to make sure it was legal, warn him that he could hurt himself doing it or simply assert that it was not a winning strategy.
Fosbury ignored the advice. He improved his personal best by an entire foot in high school alone. He began training harder and discovering a new joy in the sport.
“When you reached the elite level in the high jump, going over the bar at those high levels, you really feel like you’re flying,” he told The Times in 2002. “You’re up there for only a second, but time really does begin to slow down. Time expands. The mind does amazing things. And at that level, it’s truly 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”
It was not just Fosbury’s form that made him an unconventional athlete. He wore mismatched running shoes. He had the arm muscles of a chess player. Before making an approach run, he rocked back and forth, clenching and unclenching his fists.
He graduated from Oregon State University in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. He moved to Idaho, where he founded an engineering company. His jobs included designing and building bike trails and running paths. He ultimately became a county commissioner in Blaine County, Idaho.
He also stayed involved in sports, serving as a vice president of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Association and teaching the high jump around the world.
He took swing dancing classes with a woman named Robin Tomasi. She became his wife, and they grew hay and cared for horses on a farm near the town of Bellevue in southern Idaho. He was in Salt Lake City to be treated for his lymphoma.
Fosbury’s survivors include his wife; his sister, Gail Fosbury; his son, Erich; his stepdaughters, Stephanie Thomas-Phipps and Kristin Thompson; and several grandchildren.
Even after his Olympic victory, it still seemed possible that the Fosbury Flop was a novelty act and that other techniques, like the straddle, might prove superior in the end.
“I think quite a few kids will begin trying it my way now,” Fosbury told The Times in 1968. “I don’t guarantee results, and I don’t recommend my style to anyone. All I say is, If a kid can’t straddle, he can try it my way.”