Long before he was elected to the New Zealand Parliament, served as immigration minister, and held other national cabinet positions, Tuariki “John” Delamere ’74 was a long jumper with an attention-grabbing technique.
Delamere, a fixture on Washington State’s track team in the early 1970s, didn’t invent The Flip. But he so excelled at the leaping mid-air forward somersault it sometimes seemed as if he had.
His style was so gravity-defyingly smooth that when Sports Illustrated wanted to learn more about The Flip, and the debate that would eventually lead to the technique’s prohibition, the magazine sent a crew to the 1974 national qualifiers to watch Delamere jump. Just a few weeks earlier he’d tied the Olympic record holder, University of Southern California’s Randy Williams, during the Pac-8 championships.
“Looking back, I’m somewhat amazed that I did it because I had never even done a somersault into a swimming pool—and, ironically, I still haven’t,” says Delamere, who lives in Auckland and still competes at the master’s division in track and field events. “I started by somersaulting onto the pole vault pit. That convinced me I was onto a good thing because we were able to see how far I was somersaulting.”
Delamere, 64, is tall, physically fit, and has an easy-going demeanor. He speaks with a tell-tale Kiwi accent and his mixed ancestry—native Maori father and English mother—enables him to navigate New Zealand’s cultural landscapes with relative ease.
He was back in the Pacific Northwest last May to reconnect with friends and colleagues while helping cheer on Cougar athletes at the Pac-12 Track and Field Championships in Seattle. The steady rainfall that weekend did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.
“You get used to it,” he said, wiping rain drops from his brow while striking up conversations with other track enthusiasts. “It’s just part of the experience.”
Like the weather, unpredictability and a flair for the unexpected have been hallmarks of a life that has taken Delamere from corporate boardrooms to political upsets.
A WSU track scholarship brought him to the United States in 1970. That led to a stint in the U.S. Army, where he served as an accountant and helped coach long jumpers at West Point. His ties to the South Pacific and his Maori roots later turned into a job as chief financial officer at Polynesian Airlines. And after returning to New Zealand, where he took on leadership roles with indigenous tribes, he won a seat in Parliament as part of a swing bloc in 1996 that tipped control of the federal government and landed him in various cabinet roles as a rookie politician.
Back in high school, where he was a standout long and triple jumper, Delamere was aware that top athletes could earn full-ride scholarships to U.S. universities and wrote to the top 10 collegiate track programs. He said all responded with offers but only Washington State followed up with a telephone call, and that cemented his decision.
It was toward the end of Delamere’s collegiate track career that he began contemplating the mid-air somersault, already an experimental maneuver that a pre-Olympic champion Bruce Jenner and a handful of European athletes were experimenting with as well.
Although it involved a type of acrobatic skill that likely could become a crowd-pleaser, Delamere took a scientific approach to the new technique, blending his personal experience as an accomplished long jumper with the expertise of Washington State’s human biomechanics lab. When long jumpers leap, they begin to naturally rotate forward around their midsections, which become like a fulcrum. That’s why jumpers must tilt their upper bodies backwards slightly to remain upright when they leap.
The science behind The Flip, specifically the forward mid-air somersault, is based on taking advantage of the natural fulcrum.
“I thought it was a better way to jump,” Delamere says. “My theory was, why fight the rotation? Why not take it to its logical conclusion? And so I decided to do the somersault.”
Some, however, dismissed the technique as a stunt. Others worried that it could lead to severe injuries. A fierce debate over The Flip raged within track and field circles, and in 1975 the International Association of Athletics Federations, citing safety concerns, banned the mid-air somersault from use in long jump competitions.
Since Delamere had the longest recorded jump in a sanctioned meet using the mid-air somersault, the ban effectively sealed his status as the technique’s world record holder.
But decades have passed since Delamare last somersaulted into a long jump pit.
Now, he spends most of his time working internationally as an immigration consultant. He and his wife, Jo-ell, who he met at WSU, raised three children and have eight grandchildren.
He remains an avid track and field enthusiast and, in his spare time, still contemplates ways the sport might improve its spectator appeal.
Nothing as dramatic as a leaping, mid-air somersault, but perhaps just as eye-raising: fantasy league gambling.
Delamere isn’t the only person talking about that. A fledgling internet-based track and field fantasy league already exists. But whether the idea to introduce cash prizes and payouts ever takes root, the willingness to think broadly and take chances is classic Delamere.
“It’s controversial, I know that and understand that,” he says. “But the idea is you need to find some kind of incentive for people to start following these amazing athletes… and maybe it’s going to take having money on the line to get that started.”
On the web
“The flip that led to a flap,” Sports Illustrated, July 29, 1974, by Donald Moss.