Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Dick Fosbury & Who Innovated What?

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Dick Fosbury went over the high jump bar backwards and won the gold medal clearing a height of 7-4 1/4 (2.24m). Over the next 15 years or so, his Fosbury Flop technique became absolutely dominant. More recently as the world has become more and more obsessed with innovation, Fosbury has started to pop up in advertising campaigns for products that hope to be seen as innovative, and the B-school innovation award circuit can’t get enough of him. What he did is also a cautionary tale about the potentially stifling effects of guidelines, check-lists and metrics on things like the quality improvement and standardization efforts directed at things like medical care.


What Fosbury did and how it happened also offers fuel for both sides of the debate about the role of the solitary genius and inventor in change vs. the role of what might be called the ecosystem the innovator finds themselves in. As a 16 year old high school student in 1963, Fosbury struggled with the standard jumping techniques of the time known as the Western Roll and the Straddle which emerged after World War II. However, as he messed around with an older technique known as the “Scissors” he started to twist and turn a bit and the Flop emerged. The fact he was experimenting practice is not that surprising. Track practices and even competitions are frequently not as rigid and scripted as other forms of sports and many coaches tolerate levels of fooling around that might not be permitted in other places. As Fosbury noted:


“The interesting thing was that the technique developed in competition and was a reaction to my trying to get over the bar. I never thought about how to change it, and I’m sure my coach was going crazy because it kept evolving. I believe that the flop was a NATURAL style and I was just the first to find it. I can say that because the Canadian jumper, Debbie Brill was a few years younger than I was and also developed the same technique, only a few years after me (and without ever having seen me).”


The second thing to note about the track and field ecosystem of early 60s is that there was some institutional memory of the Scissors and there were coaches around who had seen it and done it. So maybe the flop did not seem as weird at the time as we might imagine now, and there are urban legends about people trying what might be called proto-flop modifications of the Scissors in the 1930s.


A third thing to consider is that landing pits improved dramatically after World War II as foam rubber replaced sawdust and sand.   Among other things this led to a rule change that no longer required high jumpers to land on their feet. Improved pit technology was also driven by the development of fiberglass poles that led to rapid increases in the heights and records achieved by pole vaulters. It is one thing to fall 6 or even 7 feet into sawdust and another thing to fall 16 plus feet into sawdust. At some level you can argue that the better landing pits led the way to new high jumping techniques


The fourth thing to realize is that Fosbury was not alone. As he pointed out in the quote above, a year or two after he started innovating in Oregon, a 12 or 13 year old girl in Canada named Debbie Brill figured it out on her own. There is in fact a few seconds of video showing her using the “Brill Bend” at age 13 in 1966. If you talk to track and field people from Canada who are much older than 50 they can be quick to remind you that what you are watching when you watch the high jump is really the Brill Bend.  Here’s the clip:



Finally, Fosbury gets the credit because of his great achievement in Mexico City at the 68 Olympics, however what if Brill had gotten wide exposure on TV for going over the bar backwards first? At least a few male high jumpers like Fosbury, Dwight Stones, and Valeriy Brumel, have achieved enough fame that might ring a bell with casual fans. Can anyone other than serious track nuts name a female high jumper? Would the almost exclusively male coaches of the late 60s have encouraged the guys to try a new technique developed by a teenage girl who could barely clear 6 ft? Would going over backwards have languished in the pre-title 9 purgatory that serious female competitors and achievers were frequently consigned to in the 1960s and 70s?


Dick Fosbury is clearly an innovator.   However, even a brief look at the backstory of what he did tells us more about how innovation happens and diffuses than the conventional aha moment narrative does. The ecosystem matters and so do things like permissive coaches. I wonder if all of the leaders out there who are yapping about innovation are as flexible and open to new ideas as Dick Fosbury’s coaches were.


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2 Responses to “Dick Fosbury & Who Innovated What?”

  1. July 29th, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    George Brose says:

    Who was Fosbury’s permissive coach? Same Bell?

  2. July 30th, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Michael Joyner, M.D. says:

    It was his high school coach.

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