In Memoriam: John Thomas

‘American spectators are frustrated athletes. In the champion, they see who’d they’d like to be. In the loser, they see what they actually are, and they treat him with scorn.’ John Thomas, who has died aged 71, said that, and though his wasn’t quite a Wide World Of Sports ‘agony of defeat’ moment, any American of my generation will recall exactly the amount of scorn which was heaped on Thomas, whose failings were that he won bronze and silver medals at successive Olympic games, when he was expected to win gold.

Thomas was a 6-5 17 year old freshman at Boston University when he became the first man to high jump 7 feet indoors, and it did it at what was then America’s biggest stage, the Millrose Games at New York’s Madison Square Garden. By the time the Rome Olympics came along, he was 19, and held the outdoor world record at 7′ 3 3/4” (or 2.23 metres, though in high jumping no one ever talked about breaking the 2.13m barrier) and was considered a sure-thing for a gold medal, in one of the few events where Americans and Soviets would battle head to head. His major competition, however, was supposed to come from his teammates, Charlie Dumas, the defending Olympic champion, who had been the first to break the 7-foot mark as a 19 year old at the 1956 Olympic trials, and Joe Faust, himself only 17. But both Dumas and Faust were nursing injuries, and went out of the competition early, which left Thomas against three Soviets, their champion Victor Bolshov, the veteran Robert Savalakadze, and yet another teenager, 18 year old Valery Brumel, who had come out of nowhere (actually Siberia) to clear 7 feet for the first time at the Soviet trials. Thomas had been bothered by the constant attention he’d received since arriving in Rome. By the time the bar hit 7′ 1” only Savalakadze, who had never before cleared seven feet, was successful. Brumel and Thomas were level, but Brumel got the silver based on fewer misses at lower heights; the two men thus bound together would become good friends.

Thomas biggest mistake afterwards may have been being honest. He told the press he was proud to have won a bronze medal, and was greeted with the scorn reserved for those whose expectations the media themselves have elevated. Thomas was handsome, athletic, smart–potentially another Cassius Clay. Instead, as he put it, ‘I was called a quitter, a man with no heart. It left me sick.’
Dumas leapt to Thomas’s defense. ‘What do you want – blood?’ he asked. ‘John jumped seven feet, but the others simply were better on this particular day. He’s just a boy…and never has there been greater pressure in high jumping than here today. Just John left alone against three Russians.’ But few others did.

Four years later in Tokyo, the pressure was on Brumel, now the world record holder at 2.28m (7′ 5 3/4”), but coming off a loss to Savalakadze at the Soviet championships. He struggled in qualifying, and at 2.14m both Soviets and Thomas were one jump away from elimination; only the American John Rambo had cleared the height. But the three men all made their final jumps, and Brumel and Thomas both went on to 2.18. When neither could clear 2.20 Brumel took the gold, again based on fewer misses at lower heights, and Thomas the silver, with Rambo getting bronze. Yet again, in the eyes of most of America, Thomas had failed, but in reality he had jumped with a hernia.

The following year, Brumel would be injured seriously in a motorcycle crash, nearly severing his right leg. Thomas sent him a telegram which read: ‘Sometimes a twist of fate seems to have been put out there to test a man’s strength of character. Don’t admit defeat. I sincerely hope you come back to jump again.’ Brumel would indeed jump again, coming within a quarter-inch of seven feet, but never competed internationally.

Thomas was born 3 March 1941 in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where his father drove a bus and his mother worked in the kitchens at Harvard. He was a good enough all-round athlete to consider taking up the decathalon, but in the end he settled for four NCAA titles, seven AAU national championships, three world records, and two Olympic medals. He lost only eight times in his career, but both those Olympic medals go down as losses.

I always wondered if part of the problem for Thomas was that he wasn’t celebrated enough in his home town—Boston at the time was known for sporting frustration. Their only winners were basketball’s Celtics, led by Bill Russell, and many felt the city didn’t open to Russell’s team they way they might to their white heroes. I often looked at Patrick Ewing, doomed to fall short of championships in basketball, as perhaps being a victim of that same lack of whole-hearted hometown support.

Yet he gave back much to the city. After retiring from competition, he coached at BU, and went into business with the telephone company. Eventually, he worked as athletic director at Roxbury Community College in Boston, where he was successful not only on the playing fields, but also on sending many of his charges, mostly from poor inner city backgrounds, on to four-year universities. Thomas died 15 January while undergoing heart surgery in Brockton, Mass., where he lived. He was divorced from his wife Delores, and is survived by five children.

In the aftermath of the Rome Olympics, Thomas wrote a letter to his coach at Boston University. It was eventually made public, but I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks to Leigh Montville, who write a moving tribute to Thomas at the Sports On Earth website, I can quote it here:

I was almost to the point where I was afraid of the people. Afraid even to go out of my room because I knew I would get mobbed. As a matter of fact, I never left the village except to work out. Then came the day of the meet and I guess within the space of 12 ½ hours my attitude on life changed.

People think I’m ashamed of my third place. I’m proud of myself and I hope you are, too.

I did the very best I could on that given day.

I really learned a lot because now, for the first time since 1958, I know how it feels to come in behind a winner. I often wondered how I would react to defeat. Would I sulk around in a corner and cry on my own – or would I? I took it with the same attitude you have instilled in me and if luck was with me maybe I might have won.

RIP John Thomas. Champion.

Note: This essay also appeared at Mike’s blog: