At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and the ’64 Games in Tokyo, John Thomas was favored to win a gold medal in the high jump.
In Rome, at the age of 19, he won a bronze. In Tokyo, he took silver. Each time his performance was regarded by many people as a disappointment and by some as an inexcusable failure.
Speaking about those experiences years later, John Thomas was philosophical.
“They love you when you win,” he told me, “but they don’t give credit to a man for trying. In the champion, they see what they’d like to be. In the loser, they see what they actually are, and they treat him with scorn.”
I met John Thomas 12 years ago when I was spending time with the men’s basketball team at Boston’s Roxbury Community College, where John was the Athletic Director. That year the team made it to the Final Four of the National Junior College Championship. John was as proud of those players as he would have been of gold medals 36 and 40 years previous.
In the ’64 Games, Thomas finished second to the man who succeeded him as world record holder in the high jump, Valeriy Brumel. In the context of the Cold War, Thomas was supposed to hate his Russian opponent. He didn’t. They became friends and stayed in touch with one another for years, effectively and happily undermining the dangerous and simplistic narrative of the Cold War years.
Quietly, John Thomas’s attitude said something about the absurdity of regarding winning as the only thing, and the pain such an attitude could inflict on a young athlete who had a bad day…or, more accurately, a day not quite as good as his supposed fans felt he should have had. His friendship with Brumel defied an even more pernicious absurdity.
In 2003, in connection with an essay I was writing about the Olympics, I visited again with John Thomas. Much about the Olympics had changed since Rome and Tokyo. The Games had become a television spectacular.
“With the Olympics and other sports on TV,” Thomas said, “they want the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
“Were you the good, the bad, or the ugly?” I asked.
43 years after he was labeled a failure who’d let his country down because he’d won only a bronze medal, John Thomas was able to smile and say, “I put myself in the good.”
John Thomas died on Tuesday. He was 71 years old.