Dick Fosbury, 1968, and hard sand.

There’s a piece of video from the 1968 Mexico Olympics, just here in fact, of the High Jump competition of those Games, an event marked for the fact that a new high jumping technique was demonstrated to the world – the so-called “Fosbury Flop” – it caused panic and pandemonium among athletes and school teachers alike.

To that date the only recognised method of randomly jumping over a bar was to, well, jump over it in a manner which you’d expect any two legged creature to do so, come to think of it, there aren’t too many two-legged creatures who make regular habit of jumping over things, preferring instead to walk around the obstacle, but whatever, even up to Olympic level the accepted way of jumping over a bar set as high as your head was to use the “Straddle” or “West Roll”, which, as you can see in that video, is what all the other competitors did.

And all was well in the world for you see, in schools all over the world sports teachers, that is the teachers who weren’t good at teaching anything that involved a blackboard, could take a group of kids out onto a playing field, set up a high jump in a few seconds and tell the kids in their charge to jump over the bar and not walk around it.

Back at the Leeds Modern Grammar School we were taught in this manner with the high jump bar being erected at the edge of what had formerly been a sand pit, I say formally because while it still resembled a patch of sand with a hard kerbstone around the edge – you needed to watch your landing technique, many an ankle had been turned and/or lacerated by landing on the kerbstone instead of the sand – while it may have once been actual sand and actually soft to land on, by the time we started to use it at the end of the 1960’s little depth of sand existed and for all the good it did in offering a soft resistance for your return to earth after the brief experience of flight, it may as well have been concrete.

Still, it didn’t matter too much, not one single boy in the school had ever jumped higher than about four feet and while the odd one or two per sports lesson may turn and ankle or badly lacerate a foot on the kerbstone, none were particularly disadvantaged by having to land on sand that had almost reconstituted itself into stone again – High Jump was not exactly a flagship event at Leeds Modern School, indeed, Sinbad Simpson had already instructed us in a much more inventive way to get over a high obstacle.

So whilst Dick Fosbury and his Flop set the world of the high jump on fire in the years after the 1968 Olympics, his influence in jumping as high as your head and then a bit higher too barely came to our attention – until after a few years had passed during which some dastardly machinations had caused our all-boys Grammar school to join forces with the all-girls Grammar School next door, and the all-girls Grammar school that became at one with our school, seemed to be much keener on athletics than we – girls naturally being more interested in athletics than boys being that all the other sports at the disposal of girls are usually shit – come on, netball ?

And in that year of the great joining together of the two schools an American girl came to join the year below us, and it was in one of their sports lessons that she caused all of the sports teachers of the amalgamated school to all simultaneously have kittens and dash for the schools insurance policy (assuming that it had one, my money is on it not), when said American girl was invited to do the High Jump.

The girls High Jump was even more pathetic than the boys High Jump, it being not polite to see teenage girls trying to spread their legs over a bar higher than their head, “Can’t the girls do netball ?” the domineering Head of school The Harridan Longworth must have asked, but up stepped the newcomer, an American interloper for whom the mystery of the Fosbury Flop was second nature for vaulting a bar higher than her head, she having been trained by American Ivy League Collegiate sporting masters rather than teachers who just weren’t very good at teaching things off blackboards.

I’m told that she did a very excellent Fosbury Flop over a bar that had been set well above her 14 year old head, of that there was no question, it was a very elegant Fosbury Flop and the girls who were gathered to watch at that particular lesson spoke in glowing terms of the elegance of the technique of the Fosbury Flop compared to the ungainly and definitely impolite Straddle technique, but of course there was a problem which was only realised while the girl herself was soaring backwards through the air, inches above the bar higher than her head – there was nothing to land on.

That is there was something to land on, there was the sliver of hard sand, sand almost reconstituted back into sandstone, and the hard concrete kerb of course, and so that where she landed, head first, as is the style of the Fosbury Flop, it being normal to land on your head at the end of the Fosbury flop albeit more normal to land on an inflated rubber cushion rather than sandstone and concrete kerb, I’m told she cried for ages and the lump on the back of her head never did go properly down again.

Its why you don’t see people using the Fosbury Flop to vault farmyard gates whilst they are out for a walk of a weekend, for if you do you will find yourself landing on your head on the other side of the gate and you might not feel well enough to continue with your afternoon walk, no, this is why most sensible people open the farmyard gate instead of Fosbury Flopping it, it saves time and prolongs your life by, well, decades actually.

All of which is a perfect example of just how absurd most Olympic events are – if the competitors had to throw proper hammers for instance then there would perhaps be some relevance to real life, but they don’t, they throw a ball of steel on the end of a chain from inside a cage by spinning around several times and then letting it go – its nothing like throwing a hammer actually and I’ve worked on building sites so I’ve seen plenty of hammer throwing, let me tell you, I’ve never seen your average carpenter spin around several times in order to chuck a hammer up three storeys of a scaffold to his mate on the top floor, not once.

Have you ever seen anyone swim the butterfly stroke, perhaps in the swimming pool at your holiday hotel, or in the Mediterranean Sea at Magaluf beach? No of course not, for if you did you’d call for the hotel manager or a beach lifeguard, “Excuse me” you’d say with alarm, “that man is having an epileptic fit in the pool, or frightening the children, or both” and he’d be asked to leave, quite rightly too, and yet its an Olympic event for no other good reason than if they didn’t have an event for epileptic swimmers then it would be discriminatory and the swimming competition would have to be shortened by two days, its all about money.


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