11 July, 2014

Revolutionary styles

In this post I will concentrate essentially on jumps and throws. This does not mean that there haven’t been revolutions in running events (the standardisation of stadia, the introduction of synthetic tracks, etc.) but they are not based on style. The ones that would qualify as style revolutions are related to hurdling (where what spurred the revolution was the introduction of L-shaped hurdles), with the straight lead leg style for high hurdles or the 13-stride style for low hurdles. However they have by now lost their revolutionary aura, being part of the standard technique.

I would like to start this post with a technique which I have already discussed in my post on flops and bends and which, while revolutionary 50 years ago, is now used by the totality of jumpers. (Jesús Dapena, of Indiana University, has some objections concerning the exclusive use of Fosbury flop, but I will not go into more details here. I suggest that the interested reader track down his work). What I would like to present, related to what is called now the Fosbury flop, is a photo from the 1906 Athens intercalated Olympics. 

I do not know the name of the jumper (he was a participant at the standing high jump event). This is definitely a “back layout” style, to use Fosbury’s own terminology. And that was more than a century ago. Most probably nobody noticed it at that time and if the athlete was not among the medalists the style was waved away as a crazy technique.

The style of triple jump was free till the beginning of the modern era. One could as well jump a step-step-jump or a hop-hop-jump. In fact the first winner of triple jump at the Athens 1896 Olympics used the latter style. With the standardisation of style to hop-step-jump there remained no possibility for major changes and only technical adjustments have been possible since. Long jump on the contrary has known a short-lived revolution in the 70s with the flip (somersault) style.

Alas, the IAAF banned this style on safety grounds and thus we will never know its real potential. I am not going to comment here on pole vault since I intend to devote a whole post to it. This discipline is undoubtedly the one where the style disruption has been radical. 

Concerning throws I must start with a mea culpa. In my post on throwing circles I had attributed the spin technique to Baryshnikov. That’s what I had always thought but while researching for this post I found out that I was wrong. In fact the spin technique is much older. The consensus concerning the inventor of this technique is that it was McGrath, winner of the 1965 USA championships, who converted from the glide to the spin technique with some success. 

His personal record, from 1966, with the O’Brien style, was a solid 19.59 m (and a 58.93 in discuss throw). In 1968 he started throwing with the rotatory style and managed to throw over 18 m. (O’Brien himself stated in an interview that he had experimented with the  spin style with “some success” as far back as 1962, but he never used that style in competition). The one who adopted the rotatory style and brought it to the highest level was Oldfield. In fact at a certain point this technique was called the Oldfield spin. This, highly colourful, athlete was the first to break a world record with his technique. Revolutionary though it may be, the spin style did not manage to displace the more classical glide. In fact Oldfield, now a coach, summarises the situation in a very clear way: “In very general terms, stronger athletes could be gliders. More dynamic athletes, those better at jumping and sprinting, could be spinners”.

Minor revolutions have been attempted in discus and hammer throws. Some people have tried a two-turn discus throw, the best performance to my knowledge being that of Sedjuk at more than 63 m. In the case of hammer throw, Piskunov has tried a 5-turn technique and managed to throw over 80 m. For me, these techniques are condemned from the start because of the inadequacy of the throwing circles. It suffices to have a look at a movie of a two-turn discus throw in order to convince oneself that only a 3 m circle would make this style really efficient. The same goes for the 5-turn hammer throw (but let us keep in mind that the current world record was obtained with a 3-turn technique).

Of course, the greatest revolution in throws was the invention of the spanish style in javelin throw. Unfortunately it was killed immediately by the over-conservative attitude of the international federation. This is a decision that I keep regretting. Throws of over 120 m would have been simply magical.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNRzKUdBX-0
    This should be mentioned too!

    1. I learned about this after I had written the post. This technique is indeed presented in the corresponding chapter of the book I am writing (which, by the way, will *not* be published).