Five Winter Olympians Who Forever Changed Their Sports- page 1 | Innovation | Smithsonian
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A ski jumper flashes a V. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user tpower1978.)

Five Winter Olympians Who Forever Changed Their Sports

Considered bizarre at first, these athletes' techniques ultimately became the gold standards for their sports

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Hard to believe, but it’s been almost 50 years since a 21-year-old college student named Dick Fosbury created a sensation at the Mexico City Olympics by using a dramatically different—and better—way to clear the high jump bar.   

Instead of following the conventional approach where a high jumper would leap, then roll his body over the bar, with his face down, Fosbury did pretty much the opposite—his head cleared the bar first, followed by his body, which flopped over, face up. The technique became known, of course, as the Fosbury Flop.

Before the Olympics, purists lambasted Fosbury; the media ridiculed him, one newspaper referring to him as the “World’s Laziest High Jumper.”  But then, he not only won the gold medal in Mexico City, but set a new Olympics high jump record—7’4 ¼”. At the next Olympics, in 1972, almost three out of four of the high jump competitors were using some version of the flop.

A matter of style

But Fosbury had one big advantage—he competed in an event where only results mattered. No style points are awarded in high jumping. That’s not the case, however, for some of the more high-profile Winter Olympics events—from figure skating to snowboarding to ski jumping—which has often discouraged winter athletes from pushing in new directions. 

Olympics judges are trained to value tradition and classic techniques. Why be innovative if it can cost you points…and a medal?

Still, winter sports have had their share of athletes who, like Fosbury, forever changed an Olympic event, men and women who introduced a move or technique that was once considered radical but is now standard.

Here are some of the all-time greatest innovators of the Winter Games:

Jan Boklov: V was for victory...eventually

(Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

Jan Boklov transformed the sport of ski jumping while in mid-air. During a jump back in 1985, the Swedish skier knew that he was in trouble as he flew through the air; to avoid crashing, he spread the front of his skis apart. Not only did he not crash, but he realized that he had jumped about 15 feet farther than usual. So Boklov stuck with this less than elegant technique, refining it so that the backs of his skis touched, and clearly formed a V. The distance of his jumps kept growing.

Science supported him—by spreading his skis and displacing more air, Boklov was gaining more lift and, ultimately, distance. But the judges thought he looked hideous—in mid-air, Boklov seemed so much less graceful than the other jumpers who stuck to the classic form of keeping their skis parallel, in front of their bodies. So, although Boklov started to outjump his competitors, he had a hard time winning at first because judges docked him so heavily on style points.  Despite his long jumps, he finished seventh at the 1988 Olympics. 

The following year, however, Boklov won the world championship, despite being penalized by judges, and younger, up-and-coming jumpers started to copy his style. By 1992, the International Ski Federation had all but eliminated the penalty. Today, the V-style is the standard.

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