It says something about my commitment to writing that I’ve never shared one of my favorite anecdotes. Better late than never, I suppose.
The high jump is not the most exciting track and field event, but it is the most elegant. The athlete carefully times her approach to the bar, and then at just the right moment, powerfully leaps over it. If she is any good, she will jump higher than she is tall. Astonishing.
It is an event where technique is all important. And since the competition began, athletes have used various methods to clear that high bar. There is the basic scissor kick that I learned in primary school, as well fancifully named styles like the straddle, or the eastern cut-off, or the western roll. But for the last 40 years, the Fosbury flop has dominated all.
Named for its inventor, 1968 Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury, with this technique the jumper goes over the bar “backwards,” and lands on her back, shoulders. So why did it take a century of high jumping for athletes to figure out that this was the best route over the bar? It wasn’t because they were stupid, but rather because in the early years of the competition, when they cleared the bar, they landed in sandpits, or on hard mats. Repeatedly landing shoulders-first on such a surface is foolishness.
It was when the mats became plush, comfy, and safe that Fosbury was able to develop his innovation. And all humans were able to jump higher.
The evolution of high jumping illustrates an idea that is very much part of my social philosophy. Paradoxically, where there is greater safety, there can be greater risk, and therefore greater achievement. Not for nothing have degenerate aristocrats been historically very overrepresented in daredevilism and absurd feats of exploration. They’re the ones with the time and resources to pursue their crazy dreams.
Millions witnessed a slightly different example of this phenomenon with the amazing space jump of Felix Baumgartner in 2012. While his 39km dive was more than remarkable enough itself, as I was watching, I was particularly taken by his “egress procedure,” the 39-item safety checklist that he and his mission controller ran through before the flight back to earth. Baumgartner’s feat was risky, but without this detailed safety procedure, it would have been suicidal.
For all that human history is full of stories like maniac Polynesians canoeing into the blue or psychotic physicians testing their medicines on their own bodies, it’s my belief that greater progress will emerge where there is greater physical safety. After all, people with a death wish will always find a way to take themselves out, but the vast majority of our fellow humans love life a little more than that.
Soft mats, egress procedures, safety nets. Without them we are trying to solve our problems with the eastern cut-off, when only the Fosbury flop will do…Read More