Is it possible to innovate by going beyond conventionalities? The case of the Fosbury Flop shows us that innovation is not always what it seems.

A couple of years ago I attended a conference of TBWA\ Spain on disruptive innovation. The speaker explained that disruption is a method of innovation changing the rules, going beyond conventionalities to generate transformative ideas. And as an example of disruptive innovation, he showed us this video:

The Fosbury Flop

In this video we see how Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump for ever in 1968. Since the 19th century, the jumpers had always crossed the bar face down. In the 1968 Olympics, however, Fosbury turned his back towards the bar, obtaining the gold medal and leaving everyone dumbstruck.

In the reverse jumping style known as the “Fosbury Flop”, the athlete rotates around his vertical axis after takeoff, turning his back toward the bar. The head and shoulders cross the bar before the legs and, subsequently, the athlete lands on the mat on his back. The advantage of this new technique compared with the preceding ones was that, the jumper, by stretching out his back, achieves a much lower center of gravity, being able to jump higher.

That conference stuck in my mind and I decided to use this case to write an article on innovation. In the beginning, my goal was to show that to generate great innovations sometimes we only need a change of perspective. However, as I collected more and more information on the history of high jump I discovered a very different reality.

The evolution of the high jump

For someone who knows nothing on high jump (most of us), it may appear that during the century previous to the famous Fosbury flop nothing had changed. Nothing could be more untrue. In fact, the high jump has never stopped evolving.

evolution high jump techniques

In the chart above I’ve tried to show the different techniques that have shaped the evolution of the high jump. The start and end of each technique are signaled by their first and last men’s gold medals at the Olympics, except in the case of the scissors (number 0).

Although in the chart the different techniques seem independent of each other, all them are variants of their predecessors that, eventually, end up being considered as independent styles. That is why in many cases different techniques overlap for decades until only one continues.

high jump techniques

Images of different high jump techniques

The oldest technique is the “scissors”. It’s the simplest one and the junior athletes still use it when training. This technique, however, has never resulted in high performances and that’s why jumpers soon began experimenting with variations.

One successful variant was the Eastern Cut-off, which, as the scissors, allowed the jumpers to land on their feet. This was important, because in that time the landing surfaces were sandpits or low piles of sawdust and wood shavings. In those conditions, jumping with the Fosbury flop would have been madness.

high jump

Evolution of landing areas

The Eastern Cut-off, in turn, passed the baton to the Western roll, a technique much more efficient. However, it ceased to be competitive when a change in the high jump rules took place in 1935. Until then, the “no diving” rule considered that a fair jump was one where the head didn’t go over the bar before the feet.

To get the most from this change of rules, the Western roll gradually evolved to the technique known as Straddle, where the rotation of the body was increased. And this is how Dick Fosbury started practicing the high jump.

Fosbury had difficulty competing using the Straddle technique, since it required strength in the takeoff knee, and began to experiment with other styles. Fortunately for Fosbury, in the early 1960s American colleges replaced the landing surfaces with foam landing beds, softer and elevated 3 feet off the ground. This enabled the athletes to be more adventurous in their jumps. And it’s precisely this that Fosbury achieved with his famous jump.

Innovation is not always welcome

The name “Fosbury Flop” appeared in 1964, when the Medford Mail Tribune ran a photo of Fosbury while he was practicing his technique. However, this disruptive innovation didn’t impress anyone. In fact, the photo was accompanied by an article where the new high jump style was described as “a fish flopping in a boat”. His coaches didn’t attach any importance to the Fosbury flop and tried to convince him to return to the Straddle. Finally, when Fosbury won the National Junior Championships, one coach called him, ignoring which technique had been used.

When Fosbury finally won the Olympic gold medal in 1968 with that quirky technique, the world of athletics was amazed. Although the style was shocking, the outcome was incontestable. The technique began to spread and is currently the dominant style.

One innovation with many fathers (and mothers)

However, this gold medal concealed an important fact. Fosbury wasn’t the only athlete to think that a reverse jump might be a good idea. At the same time, in Canada, Debbie Brill developed a similar jump called the “Brill Bend”. However, Fosbury won the gold medal at the Olympics, obtaining all the media attention.

debbie brill dick fosbury

Where is the disruption?

Claiming that the Fosbury flop was a disruptive innovation in high jump would be like saying that the appearance of the Homo sapiens represented a disruptive innovation relative to the Homo antecessor. The jump styles originated by Dick Fosbury and Debbie Brill were only a modified scissors.

Second, the Fosbury Flop would have been unthinkable a few years ago without the introduction of soft foam landing beds and, if go back to the 1930s, this jump would have been simply penalized.