The Wizard of Foz: Dick’s Fosbury’s One-Man High-Jump Revolution
By Bob Welch with Dick Fosbury. (Foreword by Ashton Eaton)
Skyhorse Publishing, New York
Released: Sept. 4, 2018
In 1968, perhaps the finest US Olympic men’s track-and-field team ever stirred the world in unprecedented ways, among
them the victory stand black-rights protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City. But in competition no single
athlete mirrored the free-thinking ’60s better than Dick Fosbury, a failed prep high jumper who invented an offbeat style that ultimately won him a gold medal and revolutionized the event. No jumpers today use any other style but his.
But few know the struggles Fosbury went through to achieve his success. From the tragic death of a younger brother to nearly dying himself, from flunking out of college to nearly being drafted, Fosbury cleared far more obstacles than a high-jump bar. And even when he had seemingly made the U.S. Olympic Team he faced a “redo” that nobody saw coming.
It is a story of loss, survival, and triumph, twined in a person (Fosbury) a time (the ’60s) and a place (a fantasy-like Olympic Trials venue high in the Sierra Nevada) clearly made for each
It is a story of a young man who refused to listen to those who laughed at him, those who doubted him, and those who tried to make him someone he was not.
What they’re saying
“Welch begins his chapters with the greatest collection of stirring epigrams I’ve ever found in a single work. That means it is a history filled with the suffering of pursuing a new idea in a world fanatically ready to doubt. It is about the power of invention, and the need for wisdom in teachers confronted by that invention. Fosbury and our society have needed decades to be able to fully tell or accept
Dick’s story. Now it is done, and Welch does magnificent justice to it all.”
— Kenny Moore, Olympic marathoner, former Sports Illustrated writer, and author of Bowerman and the Men of Oregon
“One of the finest track and field books I’ve ever read, this is far more than just another sports yarn. From the moment of inspiration, when the “Fosbury Flop” is invented, to improbable Olympic triumph, the reader is taken on the extraordinary journey of an unlikely revolutionary who overcomes the doubters, the ridicule, and personal pain to turn the world of high jumping ‘upside-down.’ Set amidst the tumult of the ’60s, the tale is intense, illuminating, and filled with exquisite detail—a one-man uprising well worth celebrating.”
— Curtis Anderson, Director of Communications, TrackTown USA
“Competing in the Olympic trials is stressful and nerve-racking enough, but to have to do it twice? Dick’s read gives us a peek into an athlete’s world and more importantly the politics that have seeped their way into the sport!”
— Debbie Meyer, three-time Olympic champion and Sullivan Award winner
“Great read! Bob Welch has the rare ability to provide context to what some might consider to be purely a sports story. He evokes a time and place that many of us remember well, and provides insight for those who came after. This is a ‘history book’ in the best sense of that phrase.”
— Tom Jordan, author of Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine
“Whether you’re a track nut who has long known of the Fosbury Flop or just have an appetite for a good story, The Wizard of Foz is a fascinating window into one of sports history’s most unlikely revolutionaries. With breezy prose and impassioned research, Bob Welch makes a captivating case that Dick Fosbury’s life is about so much more than a gawky kid from Oregon trying to jump high. A must read for track and field geeks or anyone who loves an underdog story. Which is just about all of us.”
— Mary Pilon, author of the NY Times bestsellers The Kevin Show and The Monopolists
“Dick Fosbury has always been one of the most compelling figures in American sports. Through Bob Welch’s fascinating look at Fosbury’s extraordinary story, we see just how the high jump’s innovative but enduring style was created. Foz’s ingenuity combined with Welch’s purposeful prose results in one great book. It’s anything but a flop.”
— Kerry Eggers, sports columnist, Portland Tribune
“What a great tale! How a high school athlete re-invented his sport, then dominated it and went on to win Olympic gold and become a household name. And somehow he still ended up an authentic, principled nice guy.”
— George A. Hirsch, chairman of the New York Road Runners and the former longtime worldwide publisher of Runner’s World
“The Wizard of Foz raises the bar in showcasing the life of a man who revolutionized the high jump. Whether you’re a track enthusiast or not, it’s a must read.”
— Tom Pappas, former world decathlon champion
“Newly employed at Track & Field News in the late 1960s, I imagined knowing much about Dick Fosbury. Lately I’ve learned that I knew little beyond his Flop and resulting statistics. Bob Welch’s book teaches in wonderful detail about the man behind the method.”
— Joe Henderson, former writer/editor for Track & Field News and Runner’s World
“In a moment of mid-air inspiration, a mediocre prep high jumper named Dick Fosbury changed the course of his event, and his life. Such is the impact of the ‘Fosbury Flop’ that the label itself seems virtually forgotten—it’s simply the way all high jumpers compete these days. In The Wizard of Foz author Bob Welch excellently captures the angst of the teen-age high jumper who became an Olympic gold medalist during the turbulent late 1960s. It’s the rest of the story you never knew.”
— Ron Bellamy, former (Eugene) Register-Guard sports editor and winner of the Track and Field Writers of America’s Jesse Abramson Award for Excellence
“As an author of sports books, I’m no stranger to athletes-overcoming-the-odds stories. But Welch’s Fosbury tale is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Though flat-out true, it has the feel of fantasy, particularly when Dick is struggling to make the Olympic team at a high-mountain venue where giant pines stretch to the sky from within the track’s infield. But such fantasy clashes with the volatile ’60s. Ultimately, Fosbury not only changes the world, but the world changes him, particularly in his seeing the light regarding the insidious racism so many wanted to ignore.”
— Mike Yorkey, coauthor of After the Cheering Stops: An NFL Wife’s Story of Concussions, Loss, and the Faith That Saw Her Through
“The Wizard of Foz is more than a sports story. It’s a wonderful narrative about the culture of innovation, rooted in the pioneer spirit of Oregon.”
— Paul Swangard, TV track and field commentator and Olympic Games in-stadium announcer
“Masterfully written with exactness of countless memories. This book from the beginning is a testament of family love through the pain of family tragedy. The social growth wrapped around the mental anguish of Dick’s options through a time of social change did not interrupt his battle to defeat the many competitive negatives received on his journey to capture elusiveness.”
— Tommie Smith, 200m gold medalist, Mexico City 1968 Olympics
“Dick Fosbury has always been someone I’ve looked up to. Reading his story has only increased my respect for him and my sport. A highly recommended read.”
— Jesse Williams, 2011 world-champion high jumper
Bob Welch is an author, speaker, and award-winning columnist who has served as an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He has written more than twenty books, and as a columnist for The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, is a two-time winner of the National Society of Newspaper Columnist’s best writing award. Welch lives
in Eugene, Oregon.
Dick Fosbury is known worldwide as the inventor of the Fosbury Flop high-jump style, with which he won the Olympic medal in 1968. After competing, he followed the passion of his youth—civil engineering—at Oregon State University and supplemented that with an array of opportunities that came his way, many because of his “Fosbury Flop” fame. The USA Olympic Hall of Famer travels the world, inspiring young athletes and corporate partners alike while promoting track and field. Fosbury resides in Bellevue, Idaho.
Ashton Eaton is the 2012 and 2016 decathlon Olympic gold medalist and current world record holder. He resides in San Francisco, California.
Q&A With Author Bob Welch
Q. What was the inspiration for this book?
A. My childhood. I grew up in Corvallis, home of Oregon State, and was an early devotee of Fosbury’s. My room was literally wallpapered in Sports Illustrated photographs, among them those of Fosbury and of the fantasy-like setting of the 1968 Olympic Trials at Echo Summit. There were more than 100 trees in the middle of the track itself! In Corvallis, we used to hop the fence at OSU’s Bell Field on Sunday afternoons and high-jump in the same pit Dick had used the day before. He was our hero. I was 14 when he won his gold medal.
Q. When did you first meet him?
A. In 1988, while I was a columnist at The Journal American in Bellevue, Washington, I proposed a piece on Fosbury for Sports Illustrated’s “Yesterday” section—20 years after his gold medal. They liked the idea, so I arranged to meet with him in Sun Valley. He was living in nearby Ketchum at the time.
Q. And how did that go?
A. It was a mixed bag. I made the mistake of interviewing him over lunch and Dick knows everybody in town so I was constantly being interrupted. Big boo-boo on my part. Plus I showed up at the wrong hotel. When the clerk insisted there was no reservation for me I had no choice but to get one, not realizing that my reservation was for a hotel down the street. Throw in the gas for a really long drive and it was an expensive weekend! But the good news is I’d established a relationship with Dick. So, nearly 30 years later, when I called about doing a book on him in conjunction with the 50-year anniversary of his jump, I think he trusted me.
Q. So three decades had passed. Was that an advantage or disadvantage to you?
A. A huge advantage. First, the Internet had been invented so all sorts of information that wasn’t readily available in 1988 was available. For example, the results of Oregon high school track and field championships were accessible. I could figure out if there was a moon out the night he jumped in a late-May meet in 1965. That kind of stuff. But the bigger advantage was Dick’s willingness to talk about some stuff in his life that he’d never mentioned earlier, foremost among it the death of his brother when Dick was 14 and Greg was 11.
Q. How did that even come up?
A. Dick mentioned it to me the night I called him in January 2017 to propose the book. He said something like, “There’s a lot of stuff I’ve never really talked about.” I had no idea about this death and the subsequent divorce of Dick’s parents. It quickly became apparent that this was a young man who, in essence, had been orphaned, who was looking for a place to belong. And after failing at basketball and football, high-jumping — the track team — became his last refuge. In a sense I believe he all but willed himself to jump high — to save his life.
Q. What other new information came forth this time around, as opposed to for the story you did on him for Sports Illustrated thirty years before?
A. Tons, actually. I thought I knew the Fosbury story pretty well. I did not. I only knew the basics that all sorts of magazines and newspapers had been repeating for decades. I didn’t know how resistant OSU Coach Berny Wagner was initially to Dick’s new-fangled style. I didn’t know how close Dick came to being drafted after he flunked out of OSU shortly before the ’68 Games. I didn’t know he nearly drowned in Lake Tahoe shortly before the Olympic Games. I didn’t know he thought he’d made the Olympic team but, in a giant fiasco on the part of the U.S. Olympic Committee, they threw out the results of the Olympic Trials in L.A. that Dick had won—and had he missed one more time at 7-2 at South Lake Tahoe he wouldn’t have made the team. I learned all sorts of new things that gave the story far deeper dimensions—and tension.
Q. So what, in a nutshell, became the new “framing” for the Fosbury book?
A. How much more unlikely it was that a failed prep high jumper — he says himself he was among the worst in the state —would, a little over five years after first attempting a rendition of what would become “The Flop,” would become the best high jumper on the planet. A lot of people — and, admittedly, I was among them until I started researching the book — thought the story was simple: “Kid can’t jump. Kid invents new style. Kid wins gold medal.” His revolutionizing the world with his style could have been derailed at myriad turns. But it was almost as if he was preordained to do what he did. Even had Soviet world champion Valery Brumel not been hurt in a motorcycle accident, Dick would have won the Olympics, said former Track & Field News editor Jon Hendershott, because it was simply destiny for Dick.
Q. Can you give us other examples of what fell into place?
A. Sure, that four months after he first went backward over the bar — as a sophomore in 1963 — a guy named Don Gordon in Los Angeles filed a patent for a foam landing pit, the forerunner for what would become the Port-a-Pit. Could a guy jump 7-4 1/4 inches — Dick’s Olympic height — and land on wood chips without breaking his neck? Possibly. But the higher he jumped there likely he was going to get seriously hurt. Like “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” just when Dick needed something, he got it — in this case a hand-me-down foam pit at Medford High when the University of Oregon got a new Gordon pit. Another example was his being found unfit to be drafted; having flunked out of OSU, he’d lost his deferment. But he was passed over, ironically, because of a bad back. Finally, at Tahoe, when Dick was trying to make the Olympic team he thought he’d already made in LA, an opponent who was jumping out of his mind was the victim of an official’s mistake that totally broke the athlete’s concentration—and he missed three times. So, there was a little luck involved, too; Dick would admit that.
Q. Tom Jordan, the author of Pre, says “This is a ‘history book’ in the best sense of that phrase.” Why do you think he said as much?
A. It’s funny. My 91-year-old mom read it twice and kept saying that: “Bob, this is a history book.” The story unfolds at a time of unrest in America: the civil rights fight, the anti-Vietnam War protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. And so a lot of that is entwined in the book. The irony is that Fosbury, at the time, seems almost oblivious to it all. Its as if he’s an astronaut on his way to the moon; he has to keep his focus on what he does best—jumping higher. But what we find is that he had a latent reaction to all that was happening. He’d been learning, but he didn’t express that until after the Games of October 1968.
Q. The book suggests Dick had a sort of political and social awakening.
A. Yes. After the Olympics, it’s as if Dick evolves into a fuller person. Some criticized him for not jumping better after the Games; his was really a fairly meteoric career. He had one great year, 1968, in which he improved more than six inches and hardly ever lost. But once he came home from the Olympics, hailed a hero, people wanted more. Dick? He wanted to become a civil engineer. He wanted to expand his consciousness. He wanted to stand up for a black athlete at OSU who’d been kicked off the football team—unjustly some thought. I argue that while many tried to pigeonhole Dick as nothing more than a high jumper, he emerged as a more complete human being after the Olympics. Given a second chance, he was allowed back into the civil engineering program — and got his degree. He refused to let himself be defined as simply a “guy with a wacky style who could jump high.” And the cool thing is he has spent the rest of his life living the life he wanted — being a civil engineer and promoting youth and Olympic sports — and not being defined by others. And as he says about his style that revolutionized the world: “I got the naming rights!”