Richard “Dick” Fosbury, the Oregon State University alum whose high-flying, hard-flopping high jump heroics won him an Olympic gold medal and two NCAA titles, has passed away at 76.
In a statement on its website, OSU Athletics confirmed Fosbury died following a bout with a recurrence of lymphoma.
According to Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president for University Relations and Marketing, Fosbury passed away last Sunday.
“The university, and all members of the OSU community, are saddened by Dick Fosbury’s passing,” Clark said.
Fosbury, who, according to the OSU Athletics website, graduated from OSU in 1972 with a degree in civil engineering, won the gold medal for the high jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Fosbury also won back to back NCAA championships in 1968 and ‘69.
“A true Beaver, but also an innovator that changed the sport of track and field not only for college students, but for all people engaged in sport,” Clark said in remembrance of Fosbury.
A Successful Flop
Fosbury had initially learned the straddle technique for the high jump. This technique involves the athlete going over the high-jump bar facing down, and lifting their legs individually over the bar, according to the Smithsonian Institute.
While attending high school in Medford, Fosbury began to develop an entirely new technique. At a track meet in nearby Grants Pass, Fosbury bucked convention and jumped over the bar backwards, arching his back over the bar then kicking his legs over.
The new technique was initially met with disregard, and after one track meet, according to the AP, the Medford Mail-Tribune ran a headline reading “Fosbury Flops Over the Bar.” Fosbury would embrace the term, and the ‘Fosbury Flop’ was born.
According to the Smithsonian, OSU track and field coach Berny Wagner initially attempted to convince Fosbury to use the more conventional straddle technique.
Any doubt in the ‘Flop’, however, was lifted when Fosbury broke the OSU high jump record in March of 1967, leaping to a height of 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 meters), according to the March 30, 1967 Daily Barometer.
Once Fosbury stuck with the ‘Flop’, the accolades began to roll in. According to the 1970 media guide for OSU’s Men’s Track and Field team, Fosbury won three PAC-8 championships from 1967-1969, back-to-back NCAA national championships in 1968 and 1969, and was named an All-American in 1968 for his high jump performances.
While his resume as an OSU student athlete was undoubtedly impressive, it was on the global stage where Fosbury made the biggest mark of his athletic career.
Fosbury competed at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, representing the United States along with Ed Caruthers in the high jump.
According to the October 22, 1968 Daily Barometer, Fosbury captured the gold medal in the event and set an Olympic record with a jump of 7 feet 4.25 inches (2.24 meters), with teammate Caruthers taking silver.
It didn’t take long for athletes to adopt Fosbury’s technique and by the 1972 Olympics, 28 of 40 jumpers that competed had adopted Fosbury’s technique, according to the AP. The 1976 Olympic games in Montreal was the last Olympics where a jumper won without using the ‘Fosbury Flop’.
Clark said Fosbury’s innovative technique opened the door for high jumpers to excel in new ways that had not been possible before the development of the ‘Flop’.
“In the sport of Track and Field, it is not often that someone makes such revolutionary advancements and impacts on the sport,” Grace Fetherstonhaugh, a redshirt senior on OSU’s track and field team, said. “The ‘Fosbury Flop’ is a technique utilized by athletes across the world. I think all of Beaver Nation should be proud to have had such an incredible, revolutionary athlete represent what we stand for.”
Life off the field
After retiring from competition, Fosbury was inducted into the State of Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, Oregon State Sports Hall of Fame, U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, according to the OSU athletics website.
Fosbury also served as President of the World Olympians Association and Vice President of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Association.
Fosbury remained an advocate for fair play and the rights of athletes, according to USA Track & Field’s obituary for him. In fact, Fosbury had advocated for both his fellow athletes and fellow students during his time as a student athlete at Oregon State.
In 1969, Fosbury spoke in front of a large crowd in the Memorial Union, according to the Feb. 26, 1969 edition of the Daily Barometer, giving his support to protests of the football team’s dismissal of Black linebacker Fred Milton.
Milton had refused to shave his beard, according to the OSU Library, arguing that the team’s prohibition of facial hair was a violation of his rights.
After graduating from Oregon State, Fosbury helped found Sawtooth Engineers, later Galena Engineering, where he served as president until retiring in 2011, according to the USATF obituary. In addition, he served as City Engineer for Ketchum and Sun Valley in Idaho.
Fosbury also served as Blaine County Commissioner in Idaho, having been re-elected to a second term in 2020, according to the Blaine County website.
Enduring OSU legacy
The legacy that Fosbury left behind can be seen in the outpouring of tributes in the wake of his passing, particularly around the Oregon State community.
“A pioneer in track and field, he was the quintessential Beaver … few OSU alumni have gained the level of notoriety and honors bestowed on Mr. Fosbury in his lifetime,” John Valva, executive director and vice president of the OSU Alumni Association, said. “All Beavers have benefited from his accomplishments and have been proud that he’s part of our OSU family. We celebrate his life and friendship and will miss him dearly.”
Bell Field, the former site of OSU’s track and field complex, and the place where Fosbury honed his skills, would only last for two years past his graduation, before being demolished in 1974, according to the OSU library.
Today, the area is now occupied by the Dixon Recreation Center, according to Clark.
However, there remains a reminder of the history that took place there in the form of a statue of Fosbury showing him clearing a high jump bar while doing his signature ‘Fosbury Flop’.
Fosbury’s statue was unveiled in October 2018 in honor of the 50th anniversary of his Olympic Games triumph in Mexico City, according to the OSU athletics website.
“Dick’s legacy has a hugely significant impact on the Oregon State Track & Field program. Track & Field athletes and fans across the world know of Dick, the Fosbury Flop, the astonishing advancement he has made in the sport,” Fetherstonhaugh said.
Fetherstonhaugh highlighted Fosbury’s contribution to the sport of track and field, citing Fosbury as one of the most influential figures in the sport’s history.
“The fact that he is a Beaver inspires our program to continue to grow. His legacy pushes us athletes to think outside the box on how we can get better each day in the ways that Dick demonstrated,” Fetherstonhaugh said.
While Fosbury’s individual accomplishments are significant, Clark said that Fosbury’s legacy expands further than just medals or championships.
“People are special not just because they achieve something once, such as Dick Fosbury inventing change in the high jump, or winning NCAA championships, or the Olympics. It’s who they are as people, throughout life,” Clark said. “Dick was special not only in the moment as a student athlete, as an innovator in sport, as an Olympic champion, but he was special as a member of Beaver Nation and of his community in Idaho for decades and his passing is sad, but he leaves behind a legacy of contribution.”