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.”