John Thomas, Olympic high jumper, dies at 71

High jumper John Thomas in Cambridge, Mass. High jumper John Thomas in Cambridge, Mass. Photo Credit: AP, 1960

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He was the overwhelming favorite in his event, so much so that U.S. sportswriters covering the 1960 Summer Olympics boasted that if Americans won just one gold medal over the rival Soviet Union at that year's Games, it would be his.

A skinny 19-year-old from Boston, John Thomas had been the first high jumper to leap 7 feet indoors, setting the mark when he was only 17. When the Summer Games began, he was the world record-holder in the event, by then having cleared 7 feet more than 30 times. He had not been defeated in two years.

But when he lost -- perhaps inevitably, given his age and the pressure of the Olympics -- Thomas was remarkably levelheaded, telling reporters he was disappointed but proud to have won the bronze medal.

Not so the sports media, which castigated the teenager for choking. "I was called a quitter, a man with no heart," he was later quoted as saying. "It left me sick."

Thomas, who became a community college coach and athletic director after he stopped competing, died Jan. 15 while undergoing heart surgery at a hospital in Brockton, Mass., where he lived, his family said. He was 71.

Thomas and Valery Brumel, one of two Soviets who had defeated him in Rome, shared an Olympic record at the 1964 Tokyo Games, each jumping 7 feet, 1 3/4 inches. But Brumel, who had fewer missed attempts, again edged Thomas, taking home the gold to his rival's silver.

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Coming at the height of the Cold War, the rivalry was intensified by the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. But competing again and again against each other, they forged an improbable friendship.

When Brumel was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in October 1965, a year after the Tokyo Olympics, Thomas sent him a telegram. "Sometimes a twist of fate seems to have been put there to test a man's strength of character," he wrote. "Don't admit defeat. I sincerely hope you come back to jump again."

Brumel recovered to compete again, but never regained his form. The two men stayed in touch throughout their lives, and Thomas visited Brumel several times in Moscow. Brumel died in 2003, mourned by his old friend.

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