The high jump may have been an event in the ancient Olympics, but unlike the long jump, there doesn’t seem to be firm evidence. High jump contests of sorts were no doubt held at different times through the ages. However, the earliest recorded competition took place in the early 19th century in Scotland, where the best jumpers cleared around five feet six inches or 1.68 meters.
Techniques used at this time were the straight-on approach and the scissors jump. The latter was the favored technique until the end of the 19th century, although it was still frequently used well in the first half of the 20th century. The scissors involves an angled run, before the leg nearest the bar is lifted high in the air and over the bar, followed by the take-off leg. The athlete remains fairly upright throughout and landed on their feet in the days before soft landing bags.
The high jump was one of the events contested in the first modern Olympics in 1896 at Athens. There were only five competitors, including three from America. Ellery Clark of the US won the event with a jump of five feet 11 inches or 1.81 meters. The two jumpers tying for second place could only manage five feet five inches or 1.65 meters.
High jump techniques started to change around this time with the introduction of the eastern cut off by American M.F. Sweeney. This method is similar to the scissors, except the athlete’s back is extended and flattened out as he clears the bar. Sweeney jumped six feet five and a half inches or 1.97 meters in 1895 before bettering this mark with a leap of six feet six inches. Sweeney didn’t compete at the 1896 Olympics. By the 1900 games in Paris, his style was used by a few of the jumpers, and the event was won by Irving Baxter of the US, clearing six feet two and a half inches or 1.90 meters.
An event contested at these games was the standing high jump where contestants were allowed no run up and had to jump with feet together. America’s Ray Ewry won easily with a leap of five feet five inches or 1.655 meters. He won again in 1904 at St. Louis but with the lower height of 1.6 meters, and once more in 1908 at London, jumping 1.57 meters. Platt Adams won in Stockholm in 1912 with a jump of 1.63 meters. This was the last standing high jump competition at the Olympics. It is rarely contested these days, although a notable standing high jumper was Sweden’s Rune Almen who leapt 1.8 meters in 1974 and later jumped 1.9 meters.
Meanwhile, the conventional high jump was going through another change in technique. George Horine developed the western role method where the take-off leg is the inside leg or the one nearer the bar instead of the outside leg as with the scissors. With this style, the jumper is horizontal as he rolls over the bar while facing downwards. Horine broke the world record twice in 1912, becoming the first athlete to clear two meters or six feet seven inches. He competed in the Olympic Games in that year but couldn’t repeat his earlier efforts, having to settle for bronze with a leap of 1.89 meters.
By the early 1920s, women were competing in track and field events, including the high jump. The earliest known high jump record by a woman was 1.46 meters by American Nancy Voorhees in 1922. Women first competed in the Olympic Games at Amsterdam in 1928 and the high jump was one of the events, attracting 20 competitors from nine countries. Ethel Catherwood of Canada won gold with a world record jump of five feet three inches using the scissors. The 1932 winner in Los Angeles, Jean Shiley Newhouse of the US, tied with Babe Didrikson with a world record 1.65 meters but Newhouse was awarded the gold as Didrikson had used the western roll which, while not illegal, was deemed as diving.
The western role technique further developed into the straddle, where jumpers rotated their bodies over the bar instead of merely sailing over it. American and Russian athletes using this technique dominated the event in the postwar period. At a meet in 1956, Charles Dumas of the US was the first person to jump seven feet or 2.13 meters and went on to win gold at the Melbourne Olympics that year. American John Thomas nudged the mark up to seven feet four inches or 2.23 meters in 1960.
Russian jumper Valeriy Brumel leapt seven feet six inches or 2.28 meters in 1963, using a longer and faster approach and putting his head over the bar first in a diving motion rather than the conventional parallel straddle used by the Americans. Thomas copied Brumel’s longer run up but it didn’t work as well for him.
Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump with a technique he developed in the 1960s after being unhappy with the straddle and going back to the scissors and the eastern cut-off. By 1963 at age 16, he was clearing the bar face up and legs together. An Oregon newspaper reporter called it the Fosbury flop. After winning national titles and at the US Olympic trials in 1968, he won gold at the Mexico City Olympic Games in that year. His curved run enabled him to build up more lateral speed as his body was crouched low and leant inwards, generating additional upward momentum at take off. The centripetal force generated by his J-curve run up allowed him to turn in the air, propelling him over the bar.
By the Munich Olympics four years later, 70 per cent of competitors in the men’s high jump used the Fosbury flop. Since 1972, only two medal winning high jumpers at the Olympic Games have not used the flop. It is now the technique used by virtually all competitive jumpers. Fosbury never held the world record but since the year he introduced his technique onto the world stage, the record has risen from Brumel’s 2.28 meters to Cuban Javier Sotomayor’s jump of 2.45 meters in 1993. The women’s record rose from Romanian Iolanda Balas’ 1.91 meters to Bulgarian Stefka Kostadinova’s 2.09 meter leap in 1987.
With neither the men’s nor women’s world record broken for quite some number of years, perhaps the limits to human high jumping have just about been reached.