The high jump is one of the most elemental of athletic contests. The athlete is required to leap unaided, except for human propulsion, over a horizontal bar placed at a predetermined height, with the height being incrementally raised until no remaining competitor can clear the standard. In competition, a jumper is generally given three opportunities to clear the bar at a particular height.
While it is unclear as to whether the high jump was included as an event in the ancient Olympics, this discipline has been a part of the modern Olympic Games since their inception in 1896. The high jump, while very simple in its structure and its competitive format, is an intensely technical sport, in which the successful athlete will combine innate physical talent, speed, footwork, and a highly developed ability to control the body in mid-air as the bar is approached. A typical high jumper is tall and slender, so as to achieve a desirable strength to weight ratio in the propulsion of the body over the bar. These athletes also generally possess a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs, the muscle components that assist in developing explosive movements in their take-off from the ground to the bar.
The technique employed by the first Olympic high jumpers in 1896, methods that with modification remained the standard in the sport for almost 30 years, was the "scissor kick." The basic movement of the scissor kick involved the run up to the bar, followed by a lift of the leg closest to the bar, and a scissoring motion with the trailing leg to achieve clearance. In the quest to conquer higher standards, techniques that permitted the body of the jumper to be delivered with the torso parallel to the bar were developed; the "western roll" and the "straddle" are both the names and the descriptions of these movements.
The 1968 Olympics high jump competition was won by American Dick Fosbery, who had modified the traditional approaches to the event into a new technique that was dubbed the Fosbery Flop. Fosbery approached the bar with a run up from a diagonal position, and then jumped as he twisted his body to direct his head and shoulders over the bar, with his torso, buttocks, and legs trailing behind. The Fosbery Flop, with various minor adjustments, has remained the essential high jumping method for both men and women since that time.
The progression of the world record standard of the high jump was profound between the first modern Olympics of 1896 to the early 1960s, from the mark of 6 ft 5 in (1.97 m) to that of 7 ft 5 in (2.28 m). The current world record was set in 1993 by Javier Sotomayor at 8 ft 1 in (2.45 m); the best women's high jump is that of Stefka Kostadinova, achieved in 1987, a height of 7 ft 1 in (2.09 m). The reasons for the stall in the progression of the world record standard, relative to developments in other Olympic events, is unclear.
The high jump, as with many track and field events, is a prominent one at the Olympics and at the biennial World Track and Field Championships; it is not otherwise a sport that attracts significant media attention. The high jump is also of some notice as a component of the decathlon and modern pentathlon events. High jumpers compete in considerable numbers, but with relative anonymity throughout the world, from the sports clubs of Europe to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships of American universities.
The training methods of a high jumper will incorporate elements of speed, strength, explosiveness, flexibility, and significant mental training and concentration. The run up to the bar and the take-off from the ground to the air are the aspects of the sport that blend the first three of the training areas. The contortion of the body while moving across the bar requires continuous reinforcement of the musculoskeletal flexibility of the athlete. As with any individual sport, the athlete must steel him or herself to the fact that there will be missed jumps in any competition; the ability of the jumper to recover from a miss and to refocus his or her efforts on the next jump are essential to competitive success.