Fosbury effect and the idea of progress

Back in 2011 I read a story about a certain guy that I never heard of before. He was an an high jumper and his name was Richard Fosbury. That story eventually became one of the was the best story I’ve read in 2011.

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Fosbury at the time was a retired, olympic gold-medal winner. What impressed me, tough, wasn’t the fact that he won an olympic gold medal, but how he won that award.

Before we go deep into the how, we have to take quite a huge step back, and see what the world of high jump looked before the 60s.

The first recorded high jump event took place in Scotland in the 19th century. This is were humans for the first time in history faced with this new discipline. They had a clear problem to solve: jump as high as you possibly can. and They solved that problem in the most intuitive way.

So the scissor technique has been created. alt jump

Quite straightforward. The run-up is a straight line at 30 to 50 degrees to the bar, jumping over the lowest point of the bar which is usually the centre.

This happened to be the most natural way to solve the problem.

The eastern cut-off continued to be competitive until the Olympics Games in 1936. At the Berlin Olympics Games in 1936 the eastern cut-off style evolved in the western roll.

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The western roll lasted for about 10 years before it was consolidated in the Straddle. The straddle became quick the the most adopted technique.

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The technique that humans used to solve the problem naturally evolved over the course of two centuries. At posteriori you can retrace the clear and well defined thread that humans have been through in the course of years to gain small centimeter after centimeter.

They took the attempt of a first rudimentary solution and improved it steadily years after years with a meticoulous Kaizen approach. This is what looked like the high-jump record timeline after 150 years.

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Until something happend in the Olympic Summer Games of 1968 in Mexico City.

This is where, Dick Fosbury, a 21 years old US high-jumper from Portland Oregon comes in. He was not a top-talented high-jumper. Before the summer of 1968 he hadn’t won any special prize and after that Olympic edition he finished his career coaching small teams in his original town.

But here’s the thing! He wasn’t genius but he was crazy enough to think what nobody else ever thought before. He thought that he could jump higher, jumping backwards. He demonstrated that the most counterintuitive thing was the most effective and in a single day he blew away year everything was ever done before.

We’re used to idea that progress comes as a natural top-down development of the present when most of the time progress comes as bottom-up destruction of the present by trial and errors.