"Fearless Fosbury is a 21-year-old senior at Oregon State University with a major in civil engineering, two bad feet, a worn-out body, an unbelievable style of high jumping head first on his back, a habit of talking to himself in mid-air – and a gold medal and an Olympic record."
That was the breathless opening to a New York Times report the day after the Olympic high jump final in 1968. Dick Fosbury had just stunned Mexico by taking an event with more than 100 years of history and turning it upside down.
You know the story, but it's worth watching colour footage of that final to get a sense of how big this was – and to consider how innovations can transform sports. There's a little film of it, inexplicably but rather effectively given a Brian Eno soundtrack.
We start with Giacoma Crosa, an Italian journalist, who has a go at 2.14m. His run-up looks familiar enough but as he reaches the bar, he lifts his right leg high and launches it over. His body follows the leading leg, as if he's trying to mount a horse but carry on over it.
The straddle was a relatively modern technique being used alongside the scissor, which involved scraping the bar with the bottom while 'scissoring' the legs over it; and the western roll, a sort of hips-down variation. The scissor was a throwback to the standing high jump of old, when there was no run-up or crash mat – you had to land on your feet.
The next two men to jump after Crosa in the clip also use the straddle. It works, allowing them to clear well over their own height. But, viewed today, it looks inelegant, almost clumsy. High jumpers hadn't figured out how to fly.
Then Fosbury steps up. He wears a green singlet, white shorts, and odd Adidas shoes – one blue, one white. He jumps and, well, it just looks normal; head first, back arching over the bar, a kick of the trailing legs to clear, lands on his shoulders. But almost 40 years ago, Fosbury was a freak.
"He charges up from slightly to the left of centre with a gait that may call to mind a two-legged camel," Sports Illustrated wrote at the time. After clearing the bar, he "extends himself like a slightly apprehensive man lying back on a chaise longue that's too short for him."
Allowing the athlete to soar from obscurity to 2.24m, a novelty technique Fosbury had developed alone over years was immediately studied all over the world
The New York Times report went on: "The people at Oregon State are studying hundreds of films of their flying civil engineer in action, but so far nobody has figured out a way to duplicate his style. Even Fearless Fosbury is amazed. 'Sometimes I see movies,' he says, 'and I really wonder how I do it.'"
Fosbury's genius was to work out that by wrapping himself so closely around the bar, he could significantly lower his centre of mass during the jump, to a position below the bar. The force required to reach the same height came down, opening the high jump to a generation of leaner, springier athletes.
"I think quite a few kids will begin trying it my way now," Fosbury told the New York Times. He was right. After allowing the athlete to soar from obscurity to 2.24m, the novelty technique he had developed alone over years was immediately studied all over the world.
When Munich came around four years later in 1972, 28 out of 40 competitors had adopted the technique. The winner in the men's event, the Soviet athlete Jüri Tarmak, was a straddler; but he would be the last non-flopper to win any Olympic medal.
We can compare the evolution of new techniques in sport to any innovation. In Diffusion of Innovations in 1962, the American sociologist Everett Rogers described how innovators inspire early adopters, a phrase he came up with, and an "early majority" before critical mass is achieved.
It normally takes longer than four years, even when changes can be considered innovations at all. Decades of incremental improvements can produce wildly improved performances without the need for revolution. Compare the winning vaults in the men's gymnastics competitions in 1932 and 2012.
But sport is full of innovators like Fosbury, who look beyond the incremental. Nobody knows who first decided to hit a backhand with two hands, but the Australians Vivian McGrath and John Bromwich were the first notable players to make it work at the top level of tennis in the 1930s.
It took 40 years before Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert won Wimbledon using the stroke, thrusting it into the modern era in 1974. Two years later, Björn Borg, the player credited more than any other with sealing its rise, gripped the Wimbledon trophy with both hands and didn't let go for five years.
The American writer Michael Steinberger studied the decline of the more elegant single-handed backhand for a 2014 New York Times Magazine story, and could count only 24 adherents in the men's Top 100, down from nearly 50 a decade earlier; and just one among the top 100 girls (one-handed holdouts including Roger Federer are approaching retirement).
Sport is full of innovators like Fosbury, who look beyond incremental improvements
Sometimes it takes an unschooled outlier to ignore convention. In Mexico in 1968, away from Fearless Fosbury, an equally unknown athlete had failed to qualify for the 5,000 and 10,000m races, so entered the 3,000m steeplechase instead.
Kenya had not won an Olympic gold before Mexico, and Amos Biwott had barely competed in the event. But he amazed crowds with his water-jump technique. Rather than stepping off it and into the water, he hurdled the entire obstacle, slashing the time it took out of his run and finishing with dry feet.
Other runners tried to emulate him but in this case they were not able to, and the conventional technique endured. Nonetheless, Biwott had helped to inspire a nation; his countrymen went on to win all but two of the following 11 Olympic steeplechase finals (Kenya boycotted the 1976 and 1980 Games).
Four years later, Aleksandr Baryshnikov became the Fosbury of the shot put. Inspired by the pirouettes of the discus circle, he controversially added a spin to his throw in 1972, and broke the world record four years later with a distance of 22m. The now ubiquitous method became known as the Baryshnikov Rotation.
Other times, diffusion fails even when the innovation works. Rick Barry was a good high-school basketball player but was bad at free throws (the unopposed shots awarded after fouls). His father suggested he revive the underarm throw, which had fallen out of favour just as the underarm tennis serve had done a century earlier (AT Myers pioneered the overarm serve at the second Wimbledon in 1878).
Barry was worried about being ridiculed on the court. "They can't make fun of you if you're making them," his father said.
They did make fun of Barry's 'granny shot', which he used throughout his pro career. But he didn't care. One season he scored 95 per cent of his free throws, and he retired in 1980 with an 89.3 per cent average. The pendulum-like swing of the arms from between the legs didn't look cool, but it lent his throws greater accuracy.
Yet as a coach, Barry failed to convince dreadful throwers to go low. He recalled urging Shaquille O'Neal to throw underarm at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. O'Neal later ended his career with a 53 per cent hit rate and unwittingly inspired the 'Hack-a-Shaq' tactic, which teams use to target weak throwers with fouls (better that they miss from the line than score in open play).
According to Barry, O'Neal said he would rather shoot zero per cent than shoot underarm.
A new generation may have more open minds. Last season, Chinanu Onuaku, a 19-year-old college forward from Kentucky, became a Vine sensation when he used underarm throws to lift his percentage from about 45 to 60 per cent.
Onaku will play as a professional with the Houston Rockets next season, where the throw will cause a greater stir. By then, he might have company. After Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons ended last season with an all-time league low of 35.5 per cent, his desperate coach said they would consider the unthinkable and make the switch.
Fosbury's flop had the advantage over the granny throw of being not only shockingly effective but, after the initial cynicism, looking great, too. There would be no 3,000-word laments for the the straddle technique. Persuasion is a key phase in Everett's innovation theory, before would-be adopters decide to accept or reject an idea.
Would the world have adopted the flop without Fosbury? Probably. The idea of multiple discovery proposes that great ideas tend to arrive from two sources simultaneously. And while Fosbury was developing the flop in Oregon, an unaware Canadian schoolgirl called Debbie Brill was using a similar technique. Aged just 17, she used the Brill Bend to win the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
Brill would be the Alfred Russel Wallace to Fosbury's Darwin. But legendary status would have to be enough for the fearless American. The sudden fame and chat-show itinerary that greeted Fosbury on his return from Mexico left him exhausted and anxious. "People put me on a pedestal and kept me there," he recalled in 2012. "I didn’t want to be on a pedestal. I received my medal and I wanted to be back on the ground with everyone else."
Top image: Dick Fosbury at the 44th knights of Columbus Track Meet in Boston, January 10 1970 (Bettmann/Getty Images)
This article was originally published in The Long + Short digital magazine