Ed Caruthers Dick Fosbury and Valentin Garilov
Ed Caruthers Dick Fosbury and Valentin Gavrilov

In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the number one high jumper in the world. As a senior at the University of Arizona that year, Caruthers won the high jump competition at the NCAA indoor championship and tied for first at the NCAA outdoor championships in Provo, Utah. Adding gold in the high jump at the Pan American Games in Montreal, Caruthers lived up to his nickname – “All World.”

On September 16, 1968, a few weeks before the Summer Olympics, Caruthers cleared 7′ 3″ (2.20 m) on his first attempt to win the US track and field trials and get his ticket punched for Mexico City. A 17-year-old named Reynaldo Brown surprised the field by also clearing 7′ 3″ on his first try to make the Olympic squad.

But the most watched athlete in the trials, Dick Fosbury, made 7′ 3″ on his final attempt. As Caruthers explained to me, if Fosbury had not cleared 7-3, then the third high jump spot would have gone to John Hartfield, who cleared 7ft 2 inches in fewer attempts than Fosbury.

So Caruthers, was going to his second Olympics, after faring poorly in Tokyo in ’64. As AP put it in a September 30, 1968 article, “on the basis of his past record and his timely readiness, Caruthers must be the favorite.”

Unfortunately, being a favorite is not a guarantee or even a promise. The line between first and fifth are slim centimeters. And the high jump competition can be a painfully long process. Here’s how Caruthers recalled the competition to me:

2.22 meters is 7-3 1/4. At that height, I had it down to a science. I wanted to jump 7′ 3″ or 7′ 4″ by my sixth time. Initial jumps are 6-6 (which I could skip). A lot of the others missed, so it took a long time to just get to a height I wanted to jump, at 6 11. I had already warmed up, but I had to sit for about 90 minutes because those guys were missing so much. So my plan didn’t work out.

I ended up missing twice both at 7′ 0¼”(2.14 m) and 7′ 1¾” (2.18 m), probably because I wasn’t warmed up. So I was getting scared. I didn’t warm up like I was supposed to, or get my speed going like I needed to. I wasn’t hitting my plant well. It was a long day for the rest of the guys, but it didn’t affect Fosbury at all. He had no misses. He was right on.

As many sports fans know, Fosbury introduced a revolutionary style of jumping. It may not seem so revolutionary today, because everybody leaps over the bar head first, one’s back arching over the bar with one’s legs whipping upwards and over, hopefully landing on the mat on one’s back staring at the bar in its place. But in 1968, everyone else straddled the bar, their foot being the first thing over the bar, and Fosbury’s Flop was thought to be so unusual and awkward, people were amazed it worked.

After three hours, only three men had cleared 7′ 2½” (2.20 m): Fosbury, Caruthers, and the Soviet, Valentin Gavrilov. Fosbury and Gavrilov may have had the mental edge, as they both had not missed a jump, while Caruthers had missed as many as 4 times up to that point.

However, when the bar was raised to 7′ 3¼” (2.22 m), Gavrilov crashed out, missing on all three attempts. Caruthers missed once, but then cleared the height. Fosbury, still on a roll, made the height on his first attempt. Thus it was down to Fosbury and Caruthers for gold.

The bar was raised to 7′ 4¼” (2.24 m). Caruthers told me he was tired, having jumped 10 times over a long dragged-out period. They both missed their first two attempts, but Fosbury made it over on his third.

And so now I’m trying to figure what do I do. Even if I clear it, I’m fighting myself. Do I not jump and wait to the next height around 7′ 5″ or do I go ahead and jump here, pass and get three more jumps? I can’t lose the silver medal. If I clear it I get three more tries.

But I’m getting tired. If I pass, it gives me another 6 minutes to sit there and get relaxed and put everything into one more jump. What did I want to do? I was really close on most of my attempts. Maybe I just get this height and sit down and relax. Fosbury started to have issues too.

I chose to go ahead and try to jump it. I’m over the bar but hit it coming down. My trailing leg, my left leg, hits the bar, scraping it as I’m coming down. If I had been an inch further out, I would have cleared the bar. That was the competition right there.

Caruthers and Fosbury pushed each other, setting the Olympic record three times in the course of the battle. Fosbury would emerge as one of the stars on arguably the best US team in Summer Olympic history. Not only that, Fosbury’s success in Mexico City changed the thinking of track coaches and high jumpers around the world, immediately impacting how high jumpers jumped. Four years later in Munich, more than half of the high jumpers employed Fosbury’s technique. And from 1972 to 2000, 34 of 35 Olympic high jump medalists “flopped.”

As Caruthers reflected, Fosbury’s way of jumping “was a novelty. But when he won gold, all the kids wanted to copy him.” And when Caruthers thought back to that September day at the US Olympic trials, when Fosbury made his fateful last leap to clear 7′ 3″, his body brushing the bar, he today understands that moment may have changed history.

If Fosbury had not cleared 7-3, John Hartfield would have made the team and Fosbury would have stayed home. If Fosbury had not been on the team, Caruthers may have stood on the top podium with a gold medal, and perhaps even more significantly, the Fosbury revolution would not have happened.

“That one jump in the trials in Lake Tahoe – if he didn’t make that last jump, it would have taken another two or three Olympic Games before anyone tried it. But because he won the gold medal, high jumping changed forever.”

Advertisements
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum
A Teaching Moment at the Singapore Sports Museum

Canagasabai Kunalan strolled through the Singapore Sports Museum, walking his guest through Singapore’s greatest sporting achievements, explaining the history with enthusiasm, with the skills honed over decades as a teacher.

But C. Kunalan was more than just a teacher. As we walked through the corridors, passers-by would recognize the fit, elderly gentleman as the man who held the title, Singapore’s fastest, for decades. In fact, Kunalan had held at different points the fastest marks in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters in Singapore track history.

It was 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, when Kunalan set the Singapore record for 100 meters, a mark that stood for 33 years.

Jim Hines set the world record in the 100-meters in Mexico City with a time of 9.95, considerably faster than Kunalan’s 10.38. But when you think about it purely from a statistical perspective, Singapore had a tiny talent pool. The population of Singapore in 1968 was 2 million, only 1% of the entire US population, and roughly the same population of Hines’ state of Arkansas that year.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_2
Kunalan finishing third (719) in a 100-meter heat to advance. Eventual gold winner Jim Hines strolls into the finish.

Kunalan defied the odds, advancing beyond the first round at the Mexico City Games to be recognized as one of the top 32 fastest men in the world. And if you know the history of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, you know that in 1968, Singapore was only in its third year as a sovereign nation. It wasn’t clear until the last days before departing Singapore whether Kunalan had the funds to even travel to Mexico.

In the end, Kunalan made it to Mexico City, and he was there to compete. But he knew, as a sprinter, he and his teammates were significantly behind those in the advanced industrial economies, or in the nations under the flag or influence of the Soviet Union. In his biography, C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete, written by Steven Quek, a one-time colleague of his in the National Institute of Education, Quek explains how support and role modeling by others contributed to his development.

At the Mexico City Olympics Kunalan recalled simple but powerful gestures: USA Assistant Track Coach Stan Wright offering Kunalan the use of Team USA’s masseurs for a pre-competition rub down, or Bahaman sprinter Tom Robinson coming up to Kunalan to suggest that the Singaporean be aware that he was exerting too much effort into the first 20 meters of his sprint, when he should in fact be conscious of staying relaxed. “Tom, a world-class athlete, was willingly sharing advice with an unknown from Asia. Kunalan never forgot this.”

After Kunalan’s competitions ended, he was then able to watch the very best athletes in the world demonstrate the highest levels of physical achievement:

Ever the teacher, Kunalan understood that for Singapore athletes to succeed internationally, to reach the world-class levels on display at the Olympics, their training must improve, as he explained in a letter to his wife:

We must get very serious about training. There are about 6 short men all doing 10 or 10.1. Why? Arms and legs big!! Mine only 1/2. You know darling! If I can get their strength, I will be doing 10 sec too.

C Kunalan in Mexico City_1
C, Kunalan in Mexico City

Kunalan would retire from track in 1970, but would go on to become one of Singapore’s most successful primary and secondary school teachers, twice being recognized as “Teacher of the Year”. He currently works for the Singapore Sports Council, in offices near the Singapore Sports Museum.

Maybe you’ll be lucky to see him there, get a tour like I did, and learn from a man who has literally lived the history of Singapore sports.

Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book
Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book “The Olympic Century: XVIIIOlympiad”

They say confidence is key to victory. Competitors smell fear like sharks sense blood. When the Soviet high jumper, Valery Brumel, arrived in Tokyo for the Summer Games, his minders made sure no one would see him.

Since winning silver in Rome in 1960, Brumel drove himself with a ferociousness in numerous competitions leading up to Tokyo, and according to the book, “The Olympic Century Volume 16 – The XVIII Olympiad” by Carl A. Posey, Brumel was feeling “that deepening fatigue that comes from driving the machine too hard, too long.” Additionally, he had just lost the Soviet championship to Robert Shavlakadze, who also beat Brumel for gold in Rome. So he trained in a secluded area in Meiji Park, or stayed hidden in a room with his masseur playing chess.

At this stage, Brumel was beaten and haggard, and his 2.01 meter jumps in practice were far from championship level, They were, however, the best he could do.

When Brumel was at his best, people marveled at his form, what the Russians called “pouring the body over the bar like a cascade of clear water.” This was 1964, four years before Dick Fosbury revolutionized high jumping with his “Fosbury Flop”. In the first half of the Sixties, jumpers were still doing the spin roll, and Brumel’s technique was considered one of the best.

“At the heart of Brumel’s special brand of high jumping was a sequence of carefully orchestrated moves that Nijinsky might have envied. A big, powerfully assembled man, Brumel made his run-up with an awkward-looking sprint as he shifted his elbows forward to compensate for his upper body’s gradual backward lean as he approached the bar. He had trained with weights, so that his takeoff was like the explosive uncoiling of a spring. Then, for a moment, he was flying. To clear the bar, every extremity had to be under the fine, split-second control of a bird’s primary feathers. First the folded right leg went over, then the head, the big, friendly mouth extended in a white grimace of maximum effort. The right arm flipped back, adding thrust to bring the rest of his large body over the bar. Once the left arm cleared, the left leg kicked upward, adding dynamic balance. ”

And yet, as the competition in Tokyo began on October 20, Brumel could barely find his form, or generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to compete for gold. Needing all three attempts, Brumel barely qualified by clearing a height almost every other competitor cleared (2.03 meters). “I appealed to God,” Brumel said later. “Jesus, why are you doing this to me? I’ve never done anyone any harm.”

So on a damp and chilly day on October 21, Brumel started the long slog of the finals, a journey of despair and exhaustion, in which the last man standing would be doing so, barely. As did most of the 20 competitors in the finals, initial jumps of 1.9, 1.95, 2.00, 2.03 and 2.06 meters were easily exceeded. But at 2.09 the competition went from 17 to 10, and then at 2.12, only 5 were left, including Brumel, American’s John Thomas and John Rambo, Swede Stig Pettersson, and Brumel’s Russian rival, Shavlakadze.

Rambo cleared 2.14 meters in one try, but it took Brumel, Thomas and Shavlakadze three attempts, Brumel missing badly in his first two. But something happened when the bar was raised to 2.16. It all came together and the tired Brumel flew over the bar in his first attempt. Thomas made it over in two, while his teammate made it in three, but Pettersen and Shavladkadze crashed out of the competition. And at 2.18 meters, as day ceded to night, Rambo fell by the wayside. At this point, the competition was essentially over.

As Brumel recalls,