Dick Fosbury. How creativity changed a sport

March 15, 2023

The death was announced this week of Dick Fosbury an American athlete who changed the ways an entire sport is conducted and as a result wrote his name for ever into sporting history.

Fosbury used his new technique, which became known as The Fosbury Flop to win the gold medal from the High Jump at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, setting a new Games record of 2.24 metres in the process, and paving the way for the style to be universally adopted by future generations in the event.

The sport had remained much the since since the early Greek Olympiads over two millennia ago.
The honour in those days was a garland made from the sacred olive tree, and was awarded to the athlete making the highest jump. Little has changed except for the awarding of a gold medal and consolation silver and bronze ones for runners up.
For two thousand years high jumpers gradually improved the performances. But no one had attempted to go beyond the obvious technique for leaping over a barrier.
Until Fosbury tried something different.
He had been experimenting with the unthinkable. A complete reversal of the obvious, an approach resulting in a backward leap.
It might have been no more than a trick, an exhibition to show the impossible was possible. But the demonstration went further than that.
Fosbury demonstrated his innovation on the greatest of stages, the Olympic Games. And won.
The news was received with astonishment and acclaim.
Athletes around the world began experimenting. They discovered the technique had not worked because Fosbury was some genetic freak, but because any high jumper could improve their performance by adapting the back to front, the reversal approach.

The impossible had become the normal.

The change also illustrated the impact of personal demonstration as a way of breaking out of an assumption, an unconscious belief.

Creativity scholars have described the process in various ways. Reversing perspective is found in the creative problem systems associated with the Buffalo school pioneered by Parnes and Osborn.
It was one of the simple but effective approaches suggested by Edward de Bono, and one incorporated into the creativity courses at Manchester Business School for student teams working on business projects.

An interesting footnote. A Canadian athlete, Debbie Ardell Brill had been experimenting successfully with a version of the new approach before Fosbury but is hardly mentioned for the Brill Bend. Like so many discoveries, the garland goes to the acclaimed winner. And nothing for the runners up.