The Mexico City Olympics of 1968—50 years ago this month—went down in history for tumult, from student street protests to the iconic raised fists on the medals podium. Oregon’s contribution was less explosive, let’s say, but in keeping with revolutionary times. Dick Fosbury, then a 21-year-old Oregon State track vet, won high-jump gold with an innovative technique dubbed the “Fosbury Flop.” His style, in which a jumper turns their back to the bar, remains the sport’s dominant form.
Today, the Portland-born champ continues to climb new heights. He’s running for county commission in Blaine County, Idaho, two hours east of Boise. He also conducts track camps and clinics nationwide, serves as president of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association, and has a new book out, The Wizard of Foz. Later this month, Oregon State will unveil a statue in his honor. We somehow talked our way into his schedule.
So, why did you invent your own back-to-the bar style of high jumping?
The simple answer is because it was easier! It started with an antiquated style called the scissors that I learned in grade school. But after I got to high school, my coach, Dean Benson, insisted that I conform to the classic Western Roll. We worked on it, but I was pretty much a failure. I was very frustrated, and got permission from Dean to go back to the scissors. He wasn’t exactly encouraging, but he opened the door and I went through it.
In one year, you went from being a good collegiate athlete to the best in the world, winning every major competition in 1968.
I was in my element and it was the perfect environment. What I discovered about myself was that I was a very competitive person and I hated losing. That was my motivation to finding my own way, my own style, my own technique. As a teenager growing into a young adult, I was really taken by the physical changes I was going through, developing from an uncoordinated teenager into an elite athlete. It was a very exciting and compelling feeling.
Can you describe the winning jump in Mexico City?
My third and final attempt to clear 2.24 meters (7 feet, 4¼ inches) was critical, because [my teammate Ed] Caruthers had his chance after mine and could still win the gold. I had a strong approach, perfect takeoff, and found myself above the bar, space between my body and the bar, at a height I had never been before. I’ll never forget it ... the crowd erupted and was going berserk watching me break the Games record again.
What was the atmosphere like during the Games?
I was totally focused on my competition and didn’t go watch any of the other events. But I was fascinated by this experience there [in the Olympic Village] that was completely different—seeing people of different cultures, different languages, different foods and religions ... it was just an amazing experience for me.