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That boy is going to get himself killed!

Dumb Ideas that Changed the World, Episode 11 SLOW, LOW

Tease: That boy is going to get himself killed!


Intro: Welcome to “Dumb Ideas that Changed the World.” The views expressed are solely those of the host and do not reflect the opinions of this station or its funders.


Have you heard of the Darwin Awards? They celebrate people who get killed doing dumb things before their DNA can contaminate the gene pool. A top candidate

for a Darwin Award was Richard Fosbury of Medford, Oregon. In the 1960s this gangly high school kid tried the high jump. Badly. With results nothing short of abysmal he started… experimenting. Like your buddy who’s had too much to drink, hands you his beer and says, “Watch this.”


World-class high jumpers had already perfected the straddle jump, safely landing on their feet and hands. But this teenager said, “no thanks.” In his final experiment he jumped over the bar backwards, head-first, and landed squarely on his neck. The result: two compressed vertebrae. His mortified coaches pleaded with him to stop. A Medford sportswriter said it resembled a “fish flopping in a boat.” Others compared it to a corpse falling out a window.


Luckily, Dick Fosbury survived high school and even jumped in college for Oregon State, where he earned a degree in civil engineering. Eventually, his coaches let him “flop” over the bar full-time.


Then shockingly, at age 21 Fosbury’s dumb idea won him the NCAA title and the Olympic gold medal in Mexico City— clearing seven feet, four inches. Before even starting his engineering career, he engineered his own body to an Olympic record.


In short order the “Fosbury flop” became the high-jump technique used around the world. It’s one of those dumb ideas that wasn’t so dumb after all. Physicist Leo Mathelitsch found that his center of gravity remained under the bar the whole time, proving Fosbury’s genius. Sadly, the most innovative athlete of the last century died of cancer earlier this year at age 76. The late coach John Tansley said it best: Dick Fosbury “literally turned his event upside down.”


I’m Jeff Gentry


Best reference: Mathelitsch, L., & Thaller, S. (2021). Small point – big effect: The physical focus in sports. Physics in Our Time, 52(1), 33–37 https://doi-org.glbvvproxy.enmu.edu/10.1002/piuz.202001590


Dumb Ideas that Changed the World copyright 2023 by Jeff Gentry. All rights reserved.

Host of Dumb Ideas the Changed the World
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  • Join ENMU’s Jeff Gentry each week on "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" as he uncovers some of the most important brain cramps of all time. "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" airs on Wednesdays at about 12:45 p.m. MT on KENW-FM.This program is also available online by clicking the title of an individual episode listed below. Please send any comments or show ideas in an email to Por.Dumbideas@enmu.edu.Explore the fascinating and often surprising blunders made by influential people who should have known better. Tune in to "Dumb Ideas that Changed the World" and feel a little better about your personal cognitive function!
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