Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Yesterday’s Backbreaking Achievement Is Tomorrow’s Normal

Dick Fosbury is probably the most influential athlete in the history of track and field. And yet hardly anybody knows his name.

Let’s go back to the start of his athletic career and work our way back.

In 1963, Fosbury was an untalented high-jumper from Portland, Oregon who struggled with jumps of only five feet high—the standard for high school track meets. 

He just couldn’t get the hang of the traditional straddle technique.

Set on making the team, Fosbury started experimenting with new ways to shoot over the bar. 

Most of which were nowhere near as graceful as a properly executed straddle jump. Which is a nice way of saying that he looked ridiculous.

A reporter of the Medford newspaper even wrote that he looked like “a fish flopping in a boat,” in a piece called “Fosbury Flops Over Bar.”

But Fosbury’s new technique let him clear higher jumps. So he kept at it. No matter how silly he looked.

As the years went by, Fosbury slowly perfected his unique high-jump style.

Which showed when Fosbury went to his college’s first meet and shattered the school’s record.

This was the first time people began to think differently of floppy mister Fosbury.

That same year, he made the cover of Track and Field News magazine, won the national championships, and made it onto the US Olympic Team.

At the ‘68 Olympics in Mexico City, Fosbury took the gold and set a new Olympic record at 2.24 meters (7 feet ft 4¼ in).

Despite the initial funny looks and stares, coaches and high-jumpers across the globe knew what to do.

At the next Olympics, over half the high-jumpers were flopping over the bar, just like Fosbury. The one after that, everyone but three Olympians used the Flop. 

Today, the Fosbury Flop is the standard high-jumping technique.

But what’s far more amazing, is that Fosbury’s record was broken by other athletes who mastered his technique in only a fraction of the time.

Which I don’t say to discount Fosbury’s achievement. But it proves a point: 

Yesterday’s backbreaking achievement is tomorrow’s normal.

Fosbury spent forever to master his new technique, because he had no one to teach him. He had to figure out every detail himself.

His rivals could check the tapes and see exactly how Fosbury soared over the bar. How many steps he took. How he shot off the ground. How he rotated his hips. Everything.

Plus, seeing its success, nobody doubted the power of the Fosbury Flop. Fosbury, however, long wondered if he could ever get any real success with his awkward experiments. Which no doubt slowed down his progress.

We see the normalisation of innovation across all fields. Programming, for example, only got popular after the people behind Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google—the Dick Fosbury’s of their field—showed us what’s possible.

Now we have students thinking, “I’m going to do what Steve Jobs did for Apple, but with a twist.”

Improving on what already exists may seem so simple and obvious. But that’s only because we’re so quick to forget how difficult it was to get here in the first place.

As Bernard of Chartres already pointed out over 800 years ago, when he said:

“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach