John Curtis Thomas
A track and field athlete who set several world records in the high jump using the straddle technique.
Thomas was born in Boston and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father Curtis was a bus driver and his mother Ida was a kitchen employee at Harvard University.
John became an Eagle Scout and a star athlete in high school and at Boston University, from which he graduated in 1963.
“In 1959, he was a 17-year-old freshman at the university when he became the first person to jump 7 feet indoors, clearing the bar at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. The games’ organizers selected it as the most thrilling moment in the event’s history. Thomas won five more Millrose titles, and the high jump event was named for him.” NYT
He subsequently pushed the world indoor record to 7’1½” (2.17 m), and broke the world outdoor record three times, with a career best jump of 7’3¾” (2.22 m) in 1960 while just 20 years old.
Thomas’ meteoric career briefly captivated the track world, but he failed to win an Olympic gold medal, despite being favored to win in the both 1960 and 1964 Games.
In 1960, he settled for the bronze medal behind Russia’s Robert Shavlakadze (gold), and Valeriy Brumel (silver). Thomas’s failure in 1960 on Thursday 1 September was accompanied by other failures that day by American favorites, and the day become known as ‘Black Thursday’.
In 1964 he was again beaten by Brumel, who cleared the same top height as Thomas, but was declared the winner based on fewer misses at lower heights. John Rambo won the bronze in 1964.
Thomas is an inductee of the USATF Hall of Fame.
He graduated from Boston University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in physical and psychological rehabilitation.
Thomas retired from competition at the age of 27 and became a businessman. He later served as an assistant coach at Boston University and athletic director at Roxbury Community College.
A Rivalry for the Era
Valery Brumel was just beginning to find success as a high jumper in the Soviet Union when he read in a Russian sports newspaper that a 17-year-old American had jumped 6 feet 7 inches — 11 inches higher than Brumel’s best leap. He said he told himself, “You’re not so hot.”
So began one of the great rivalries in track and field…The rivalry was so intense that Brumel could not stand to watch Thomas jump. He would turn the other way. “Why get yourself excited?” he told Sports Illustrated.
The competition transcended sports. It came at the height of the cold war, when sport was often another arena for ideological struggle. Tens of thousands of partisans cheered on Brumel and his teammates at Lenin Stadium in Moscow; tens of thousands rooted for Thomas and his teammates at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Television magnified the phenomenon.
Brumel ultimately won their epic battle. He held the world record six times, was ranked first in the world among high jumpers from 1961 through 1965 and lost only once to Thomas. And yet Thomas and Brumel became lifelong friends.
“John Thomas and Valery Brumel were Bird versus Magic, Borg versus McEnroe, capitalism versus communism,” Wayne Coffey wrote in The Daily News of New York in 2011. “They competed all over the world with massive political overlays. Brumel thoroughly dominated, but the theater was impossible to beat.”
Thomas’s marriage to Delores Souza ended in divorce. He is survived by his daughters Nikol C. Thomas, Eva Thomas and Stephanie Finley; his sons Danye and John; 12 grandchildren; and 1 great-grandson.
In his later years, Thomas worked in sports administration, public relations and advertising. He also coached and retired as athletic director of Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts.