BY CLEMENT DU PLESSIS
EVER heard of the Fosbury Flop? No, it’s not a guy from Fosbury who failed hopelessly! Rather, it’s a high jump technique used by high jumpers the world over.
The technique was named after the American Dick Fosbury after a local newspaper in Portland, Oregon ran the headline “Fosbury Flops Over Bar”.
If South Africa’s spin bowler Paul Adams’ bowling technique was called “a frog-in-the-blender” in 1995, then a local sports scribe in Portland, Oregon, wrote that Dick Fosbury looked like “a fish flopping in a boat” in 1964.
The technique was extraordinary for its time as the only techniques used in high jump were the scissors and straddle methods which very quickly, with the introduction of the Fosbury Flop, faded.
Fosbury had experimented with this technique while still at school during the early 1960s. In fact, he had broken the high school record of 1,91m using this technique and came second in a state competition.
In 1968, in the rarefied air of the Mexico Games, Fosbury won the Olympic gold medal to the astonishment of 80 000 people. He had cleared 2,24m – an Olympic record at the time. Within 10 years his technique became the de facto standard for high jumpers everywhere.
He had revolutionised the high jump event with his unconventional style and the world’s athletes embraced it, all the way down to the southern tip of Africa in the heart of Cape Town, where the nation had been divided on race and barred from competing in international sport.
Patrick Dowman and the Fosbury Flop
The complete blackout of sport in South Africa between 1970 and 1991 did not deter Patrick Dowman of the South Peninsula Amateur Athletics Club – 10 years after the famous Fosbury Flop – from clearing two metres on the undulating surface of the Dal Josafat Stadium in Paarl in 1978. He was the first in the fold of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), using the Fosbury Flop, to clear two metres – though he had used the technique much earlier.
Surely, packaging the contrasting conditions of Fosbury and Dowman, there is a strong element of proof that Dowman, under similar conditions, would have been of international class at the time.
He was a hit in the event as a schoolboy athlete in the early 1970s. (Remember Fosbury impacted the world in 1968!)
Clearing two metres was a big deal in those days. In Paarl in 1978, Dowman had to beat the old mark of 1,98m held by Charles Cavernelis of Boland.
The Cape Herald fittingly wrote and placed the article generously on its sports pages. The headline reading in capital letters and in a font size befitting of a record-breaking high jumper; HUSH FOR A JUMP INTO THE RECORD BOOK.
High jumpers round the world are for some reason or other always afforded the silence before attempting to break the record. It was no different for Dowman who learned his craft while at Livingstone High School. He held several schoolboy records at WP and SA schools’ level, but nothing like his two-metre jump as a senior men’s athlete in 1978 on a surface bereft of Olympic standards.
It was no different for Mark Bowers of Spes Bona High School (boys under 17), the first schoolboy, to clear two metres (2,00m) on a grass surface at the Athlone Stadium in 1980, 12 years after Fosbury’s 2,24m jump at the 1968 Olympics. Even the only tuckshop that day closed for the moment as it was situated near the end where the high jumpers competed (Klipfontein Road end).
The Herald writes: “A hush fell over the Dal Josafat Stadium on Saturday afternoon as Patrick Dowman, the star Western Province high jumper, prepared to break the existing record of 1,98m. Minutes later the ground erupted as he sailed over the bar to register a new record of two metres.”
What marked the significance of the event though, was that Dowman had become the first athlete under the umbrella of the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB) to clear two metres. His achievement is particularly noteworthy as the Herald affirms, “ . . . if taken into consideration that his run up was on ankle high slippery wet grass. He struggled at first to get his run up right and after that there was no stopping him.”
In a Sunday Times Extra newspaper of 1978, the preview report says: “Club Athletics reach its highest pitch on Saturday with the South African championships. Over 200 athletes from six units are taking part.”
Lives in Canada
Attempts to get feedback from Dowman, 59, who lives in Toronto, Ontario in Canada, was unsuccessful.
Not being able to get in touch with him means it was difficult to determine when his interest in high jump started. The Western Province schools’ record book reflects two names as high jump record holders in the boys open section: M [Michael] Finn (Belgravia High School) and P Dowman (Livingstone), 1,88m, 1975.
During 1975, the SAAAB Track and Field championships (seniors) had been held in Durban where a number of scintillating performances were seen by Ismail Collier (senior sprints), Edmund Lewis (junior sprints), Christy Davids (junior middle distance), Wilfred Daniels (senior middle distance), Garret Watts (junior triple, long and high jump), Andrew Ferguson (senior 5000m and 10 000m), Johan Muller (senior shot put), Norma Joseph (senior sprints and long jump) and Sharon Alexander (senior sprints and long jump).
The high jump event, that year, went to D Sanford of Boland with a height of 1,82m. Cavernelis was second and M Hofmeester of WP was third.
Dowman would later compete regularly against Watts and Cavernelis at senior men’s level.
Dowman’s transition from schoolboy athletics to senior men hardly challenged him mentally. In 1976, he held the WP senior men’s high jump record of 1,95m set on the outfield of Allenby Drive sports field in Retreat, Cape Town. He is both a former Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) and Western Province Amateur Athletics Union athlete.
Cavernelis and Dowman had a ding-dong battle in the high jump for several years.
By 1977 at the Spartans Track and Field Meeting held under floodlights at the Athlone Stadium, he had equalled his South African Amateur Athletics Board senior men’s high jump record of 1,95m.
Jumping at Athlone stadium
At the SAAAB Championships in Port Elizabeth in 1977, Cavernelis won the event with a new high jump record of 1,98m. The versatile Watts (long jump and triple jump) was third. Watts had set the triple jump record of 13,69m with Dowman third. R Kimfley of Eastern Province came second.
By 1978, of course, Dowman cleared 2m for a new SAAAB men’s high jump record in Paarl.
Several other high jumpers have improved on the record, but Dowman’s name, for a long while, was on everybody’s lips.
Such was the interest in Dowman that he had competed in high jump events in between football matches at the Athlone Stadium.
It must have been the mesmerising Fosbury Flop the people came to watch.