In 1968, American high jumper Dick Fosbury introduced a new way to compete in the high jump. His new technique worked so well that he won an Olympic gold medal, and within a few years, everyone used his method of high jumping.
Fosbury’s innovation wasn’t the only one in the track and field world. There have been several other innovations in other events, which have been shown to dramatically improve performance.
Learn about the track and field techniques which would smash world records (if they weren’t illegal) on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Innovations in athletics are few and far between. There are only so many ways to run, jump, and throw something.
That being said, innovations do arise, and sometimes those innovations are so good they are banned by the authorities which govern various sports.
A good example is the dolphin kick in swimming. The dolphin kick is when you kick with both feet together and undulate your entire body to move forward.
In the 1980s, some swimmers began experimenting with the dolphin kick and found it to be extremely effective. They found that they could actually swim faster underwater using the dolphin kick than they could at the surface in events like the backstroke.
It was only a matter of time before swimmers took this to its logical conclusion.
They would dive into the pool and swim the entire length of the pool underwater using the dolphin kick, maybe only doing one or two strokes on the surface. They would turn and do the same thing again and again.
Eventually, the governing body in swimming realized that having competitors underwater the entire time, not doing the stroke they were competing in, sort of defeated the purpose of the event, so they set a rule that you can only swim underwater for the first 15 meters.
So, if you want to know what the absolute fastest a human can swim is, you probably aren’t going to determine that from competitive swimming.
Track and field have had many such innovations in technique.
I’ve previously done an entire episode on Dick Fosbury and the Fosbury Flop. This was an innovation that stuck and was allowed under the rules.
If you have ever seen anyone compete in the high jump, they were probably doing the Fosbury Flop, which is when you go over the bar head first on your back.
Before that, most jumpers went over the bar in a type of scissor kick. If you watch a video of someone doing a scissor kick, which is still done at lower levels of competition, you can see why the Fosbury Flop works so well. A scissor kick requires you to have your center of mass well above the bar, whereas the Fosbury Flop has your center of mass below the bar.
There is current debate as to if there isn’t an even better way to jump higher. Basically, you do what gymnasts do. Get a running start and do a massive backflip. Heights measured by gymnasts doing floor exercises would have them near the world record in the high jump, but it isn’t known if such a technique would be allowed given the current rules.
Another event that had something you could call an innovation was pole vaulting.
In pole vaulting, as in high jumping, there is a bar you have to clear without knocking the bar off its stand. The bar isn’t held in place by anything, it just rests on two pegs. You are allowed to bump into the bar, but you just can’t knock it off.
In the 1980s, US Olympian David Volz developed a technique where when he was in mid-air, he would hold the bar with his hand to steady it so it wouldn’t fall off.
This was totally legal as there were no rules about touching the bar.
Other athletes began to take this even further, sometimes putting the bar back in place or even bending it to help them get over.
This became known as “volzing”.
The rules in pole vaulting were eventually changed such that you can’t hold or steady the bar with your hands while going over.
Again, this seems like a pretty reasonable rule, even if steadying a bar with your hands while in mid-air is a pretty impressive feat of coordination.
Other innovations seem totally reasonable and really just seem clever.
Take the shot put. A typical shot putter will hold the shot near their chin, crouch down, and then explode up to launch the shot while turning around. This is known as the “glide technique.” There is also a “spin technique” where you spin around to try and build momentum.
Everything has to be done within a circle that is 7 feet or 2.135 meters in diameter.
What some lower-level shot putters figured out, and they were usually women, was that you could create much more momentum if you did a cartwheel within the circle.
Shot putters who were agile enough to pull it off and could get as much as one to two extra meters per throw.
This technique was banned in 2008, supposedly for reasons of safety.
There is also a technique that has proven to be extremely successful in long jumping.
It was developed by a New Zealand jumper by the name of Tuariki Delamere.
When you are long jumping, you sprint to the board from which you have to launch yourself forward. All of your body’s momentum is going forward, and when you jump, your body wants to rotate forward.
However, if you’ve seen someone long jump, you have to counter that forward rotation in your body to stick your legs out in front of you.
In 1974, Delamere was attending Washington State University and was wondering why he had to waste energy countering the forward rotation his body.
Instead of countering that forward rotation, why not work with it?
So, at the PAC 8 Conference Championship at the LA Colosseum, he put this theory into action by doing a forward summersault in mid air during his jump.
Delamere wasn’t the first person to think of this technique. There were other athletes who tried it in practice, and there were rumors about the Soviets breaking this out at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Using this technique, the first time he ever successfully tried it, Delamere’s feet landed at 8.4 meters. This would have been the world record prior to Bob Beamon’s incredible jump at the 1968 Olympics.
The problem was Delamere had never done this in practice. If you do a summersault in mid-air, you need to have some spacial awareness like a gymnast, so you land properly. His landing was a bit unstable, which caused him to put his arm back to catch himself, which gave him a jump of 7.7 meters.
Had it stuck the landing, it would have been a low-altitude world record. Even without sticking the landing, it was still the best jump of the day at the meet and tied the jump of the reigning Olympic champion, Randy Williams.
This came from someone who was not quite a world-class long jumper and had never practiced this type of jump before.
The question was, what could a real world-class long jumper do with this technique if they had time to practice it?
We never found out because the summersault was banned in 1975 by the world governing body for track and field.
The reason was that it was too dangerous.
The problem is that if a simple summersault is too dangerous, then why is all of gymnastics allowed to exist? They do flips on wooden beams and floors which are much harder than a sandpit.
Speaking personally, the long jump would be far more entertaining if competitors were allowed to do a summersault.
The final event I want to bring up is one where a change in technique really did blow away all the records, yet its ban makes perfect sense. The javelin.
Most of you have probably seen at least an image of someone throwing a javelin or a spear. The javelin is gripped about midway, held over the shoulder at about head level, and then tossed with a running start.
Given that humans have been throwing spears for thousands of years, you’d think that would be the best way to throw a javelin.
The problem with that is that throwing a spear was usually done for accuracy, not distance. If you used a spear for hunting or in combat, you had a target you wanted to hit.
The javelin competition isn’t about accuracy; it’s about distance.
This traditional method of throwing a javelin is how everyone did it.
Just to put everything into context, the word record in the javelin, which can never ever be broken, is 104 meters. It can’t be broken because after the record was set, they changed the javelin so it wouldn’t fly as far. The new javelin world record is 98.48 meters.
Back in the mid-1950s, when this story takes palace, the world record was around 84 and a half meters.
In 1956, a retired Spanish discus thrower named Felix Erauzquin had an idea. At the time, he was 49 years old and wondered what would happen if you threw a javelin like a discus.
He held the javelin along the length of his arm so that half of it was behind his back, and then would spin like a discus thrower before releasing.
According to legend, the 49-year-old Erauzquin, retired and overweight, managed to throw a javelin 112 meters, smashing the world record.
Other Spanish javelin throwers began experimenting with the technique and got similar results. Some of them even began to put soap on their hands to make the javelin slide out of their hands more easily.
The 1956 javelin gold medalist, Egil Danielsen from Norway, supposedly tried it in practice and hit a distance of 93.6 meters.
At this point, you might be thinking, if someone spinning in circles at a rapid rate, holding a pointed spear in their greased-up hand….is safe.
The answer is, no. No this was not at all safe.
But, it did work extremely well….and it was really cool.
The technique was banned in 1957.
Several Spanish javelin throwers went on a tour in the United States in 1957 and put on demonstrations. One Spanish thrower, Miguel de la Quadra-Salcedo, once threw a javelin 124 meters using this technique in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Quadra-Salcedo eventually worked with a coach in Puerto Rico to develop a hybrid approach that they thought would be within the rules that didn’t use an initial spin. Supposedly with this technique, he could reach world record distances, but this technique was also deemed to be illegal.
What all of these examples show is that the limits of human achievement in athletics might actually be beyond what we think they are.
I’d agree that swimming an entire race underwater or holding the bar in a pole vault does seem to violate the spirit of the competition. And a twirling, soapy spear thrower is probably not in the best interest of safety.
However, a shot putter doing cartwheels or a long jumper doing a summersault seems to be very much within the spirit of the event, even if it is unorthodox.
I think some of these events should loosen up the rules to allow more experimentation in technique. It would make it much more interesting for spectators, and really push the boundaries for what humans can achieve.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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