(ATR) Fifty years ago Friday, Dick Fosbury cleared the high jump bar in Mexico City, landed with an Olympic gold medal and irrevocably changed his sport.
“The Wizard of Foz – Dick Fosbury’s One-Man High-Jump Revolution” by Bob Welch with Dick Fosbury (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.99) recounts the story against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s. Two-time Olympic decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton provides the foreword.
The book is as much about the evolution of the Fosbury Flop (originally dubbed the less mellifluous back layout) as the revolution it caused in track and field, where everyone else was doing the straddle or roll.
A spur-of-the-moment decision in a high school meet by one of the worst high jumpers in Oregon prep history became a game-changer, but not before Fosbury endured laughs from the crowd, pushback from his coaches and teasing from sportswriters.
“The fans love it. The coaches hate it,” said one writer. Another called him “the funniest high jumper you ever saw.”
Unlike similar books where the athlete is listed as the primary author, Welch -- a columnist for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon -- gets first billing and the account is written in third-person. While Welch reveals Fosbury’s thoughts, the high jumper’s voice is seldom heard in quotes. Welch instead quotes friends, family, newspaper articles, writers, historians and even psychologists as he explores the factors that propelled Fosbury -- including a family tragedy and fear of being drafted into the Vietnam War.
Fosbury at the sculpture in Corvallis, Oregon dedicated for the 50th anniversary of his gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. (R. Schulte)
Welch, who has written more than 20 books, also intertwines the story of Don Gordon, the man who invented the Port-a-Pit, which made it possible for Fosbury to land on foam without risk of serious injury. He throws in some anecdotes about Bill Bowerman,
the Oregon coach who helped found Nike and, like Fosbury, had roots in Medford, Oregon. He acknowledges Debbie Brill, the young Canadian whose “Brill Bend,” was overshadowed by the Fosbury Flop. And he touches on the space race, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and other headlines from the 1960s.
“On paper, Fosbury’s technique sounded slightly more complicated than John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of Earth,” Welch writes. “But when asked, Fosbury would suggest just the opposite. ‘It’s simpler than the straddle,’ he would say.”
when Fosbury made the cover of Track & Field News after an indoor meet in early 1968, “It was as if Dick had emerged as the feel-good flip side to American angst.”
But Fosbury’s road to Mexico City was not smooth. Controversy and a near-death experience marked the summer, where Fosbury attended training camp at Echo Summit, the high-altitude track built into a forest in northern California and described as “a magical place, a fantasy.” From the dramatic Olympic Trials at Echo Summit, the book springs forward to the 1968 Games, where a slight injury threatened Fosbury’s hopes.
A fan favorite in Mexico City, Fosbury won gold on the final day of the track and field competition as part of the incredible U.S. men’s team that won 12 gold, five silver and seven bronze medals.
The book then follows his difficulties upon returning to Oregon State, including the backlash from his stand for human rights and the ultimate decision to turn his back on high jumping in pursuit of an engineering degree.
Dick Fosbury (ATR)
Fosbury, who has been promoting the book around the country, is an enthusiastic instructor at track and field camps and is the past president of the World Olympians Association and current president of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Association.
He lives in Idaho.
Although the Fosbury Flop is world-famous, the easy-going Fosbury enjoys “just being a regular guy,” writes Welch. When he competed in a “Superstars” competition in Florida, a neighbor looked puzzled. “Why,” she asked, “would they invite a surveyor?”
Written by Karen Rosen
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