An ArmoryTrack.com news release has informed us that two-time Olympic high jump medalist John Thomas of Brockton, Massachusetts passed away Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at the age of 71.
A soft-spoken gentleman, Thomas was revered – especially in his native New England – as one of his sport’s most enduring icons. He was also among a small cadre of personal boyhood heroes of mine, along with former mile record holder Jim Ryun, St. Louis Cardinals baseball star Stan Musial, and St. Louis Hawks basketball All-Star Bob Pettit. With great fortune I got to know “JT” during my quarter-century living in Boston. Meeting your heroes later in life and finding that they embody all the qualities you’d imagined of them as a young fan is one of the pleasures life can offer. Think of that legacy, alone, in today’s world of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods.
The following is from last March 25th’s High Jump Heroes which speaks to the seeds of a life long passion planted in a young boy’s heart by heroes like John Thomas and his great Russian rival Valery Brumel.
Where dreams are made
The two silver maples in our small backyard stood like sentinels some twenty feet apart as they guarded the house with their spreading canopy of green. During the blazing St. Louis summers when the heat and humidity fought to reach 100 first – then stay the longest – the shade cast from those old squirrel-bearers represented the fringe ground of relief in a world bounded by torpor and sweat.
Strung at a height of around seven feet between those two trees ran a rusty twisted wire which not only stabilized the growth of the trees, but also gave Mom another display opportunity from which to hang her pots of blooming flowers. But that twisted, rusty wire always represented something more to my agitated young mind than a tree leveler or flower pot holder.
You see, I was a high jump enthusiast in my youth, just as I would become a running enthusiast in my adult years. So whether it was jumping up to touch the top of every door jamb I passed, hopping over the hedge Mom had planted out front along the sidewalk, or paying a neighborhood kid a nickel to keep holding a broom stick for me to scissor over, my life was nothing but an extension of my athletic passions. On many a sweltering summer night as I lay open to the endless possibilities ahead, I dreamed of being able to leap over that rusty wire in our backyard, because that was how high my heroes jumped.
During those growing years when athletes were still unseen giants of the imagination, two of my greatest athletic heroes were Olympic high jumpers John Thomas of Boston, and his great rival Valery Brumel of the Soviet Union. Between them Thomas and Brumel exchanged the high jump world record nine times in the early 1960s (six for Brumel, three for Thomas) as they battled for leaping supremacy when Olympic sport was a highly-charged subtext of the Cold War.
At the time, sports on television was still in its infancy. So whenever ABC’s Wide World of Sports came on, but especially when the USA-USSR dual track meets were shown, I’d sit in rapt attentive in front of our small black and white Magnavox TV to follow the Thomas-Brumel competitions. When hosted in the USA, the meet was staged in huge stadiums like the Los Angeles Coliseum. When the Russians played host, the massive Lenin Stadium in Moscow stood sinister in all its grainy Communist grayness. The sound of the huge crowds during the races was almost too great for our old Magnavox console TV speaker to transmit. But I hung on each and every lap and leap called by men like Jim McKay or Bud Palmer.
Often the highlight of the meet, the high jump competition would boil down to a showdown between Thomas, the powerful young American with the neatly trimmed flat-top, and the transcendent Mr. Brumel, the smaller, but more agile leaper from the USSR.
In his blue U.S.A. singlet and white shorts Thomas would approach the bar with the calculated coiling intensity of a great loaded spring. He was a mythic John Henry-like figure to me, waiting until he was directly beneath the bar before surging upward in a series of elongated body parts: the bold straight lead leg, the thrusting right arm.
He would rise like a great airship rises from the tarmac, almost in slow motion, dragging, it seemed, the chains of gravity that still clung invisibly to his sentient form. And as he rose he gathered to him the held breath of the thousands massed and with it my hopes for his and America’s supremacy, for athletics was presented as a surrogate for competing political forces.
Up, up, up he powered like a huge opening hinge, seven feet plus in all until, cresting the bar, he would hold in a moment of suspended animation as the momentum of his rising once again would gather to his form from below. Then, with energy and form reanimate, he would pivot, wrapping himself stomach-down around the bar – in the straddle technique of the day – before beginning his plummet earthward, his trail leg jutting skyward to punctuate the display while avoiding any encounter with the black and white banded bar.
In full flight!
In those days before the Fosbury Flop style of jumping, the landing pits consisted mostly of sand or sawdust. Thus, as Thomas fell, he did so from the full height of his leap. The chasm between the ground and the suspended bar yawned in its enormity, the conceit almost beyond comprehension. And rather than the rhythmic clapping of today, the crowds back then sat hushed, as their breath for a split-second was caught in stunned wonder at the glory of his achievement. Only upon his landing did they release their appreciation in an ovation which broke out in a rolling thunder through the stadium. It all had a sense of heightened reality about it, as if the moment had slowed, and with it the very spin of the earth, as it, too, acknowledged the accomplishment.
After the Thomas came the Russian Brumel. Smaller, faster, more purely athletic than his American counterpart, the dashing Russian approached the bar in a crescendo of speed, head cast down as if counting the nine quickening steps to the bar. With an elbows-out, wrists-relaxed assault he would lower imperceptibly with his penultimate step, then sweep his arms inward from below to focus his thrust as he flung his body upward!
Oh, how Brumel soared! With an all but insouciant ease his leap, turn and fall were of a piece, as his hips opened to yogic proportions to avoid final conflict with the bar. Like an arc of red paint flying from the bristles of a brush, the precision of his articulation was a thing of pure beauty. Balanchine, himself, never choreographed a more aesthetically pleasing physicality.
John Thomas was the first man to clear 7’ indoors at the Millrose Games in 1959, and was favored to win the Olympic gold in Rome 1960 after setting the world record at the Olympic Trials at 7’3¾” (2.22 meters). I still recall the crushing morning when I went to the front porch to pick up the St. Louis Globe Democrat, only to read that ‘Thomas Takes Bronze in the High Jump’. Reading further I learned that my hero had been beaten by two Russians, Robert Shavlakadze, and Brumel.
For his part, Brumel would redeem his silver in Rome with the gold in Tokyo four years later. There he and Thomas would tie in height (2.18 m), with Brumel earning the Olympic title on count back, after both jumpers failed to clear 2.20m in a competition which lasted nearly five hours.
Eventually the great Russian jumped two-inches higher than his American rival, taking his PR to 7’5 ¾” (2.28 meters) in 1963, the year he was named ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year. Can you imagine 2011 IAAF World Champion high jumper Jesse Williams earning such recognition?
A Long Way Down
Considering Brumel used the straddle technique, and often jumped off a hard dirt surface, his PR was a towering achievement for a man of only 6’1” (1.85m) in height. Thomas stood a full 3″ taller. I kept a picture of Brumel’s final world record leap caught at its apogee on the wall above my closet door for as long as I lived at my parent’s home.
Today, that same rusted wire strung between the two silver maples in our backyard in St. Louis is gone, dragged down with the passing of one of the two old trees in October 1999. Hollowed out by disease, it simply toppled over one morning beneath its own accumulated weight. I was sitting at the kitchen table with Pop when I heard a rending CRACK! and then its shuddering collapse. It was as if that old silver maple had been waiting till I was back home on a visit before falling, giving me, in essence, one last shot at attempting its wire’s clearance. Men came and sawed up its broken length and discarded the old rusted wire. Mom went out later and planted a new flowerbed to mark the spot where only the tree’s stump remains.
Where Dreams are Made
The great Brumel fell four years later in early 2003 after a long illness at the too-tender age of 60. Now John Thomas has joined him after his allotted three score and eleven years. As a testament to his legacy, Thomas was voted the top athlete of the first 75 years of the Millrose Games, the century-old indoor institution held each year (until 2012) at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The high jump at Millrose rightfully bears the Thomas name.
Thomas and Brumel were the last of the great straddle-era duelists, modern state warriors who shared much more through their athletics than any difference their skin or vest colors represented – think Lutz Long and Jesse Owens in the 1936 Munich Olympic long jump.
Others have come along over the years to better their marks. And the revolution of the Fosbury Flop’s back-first style of jumping in 1968 transformed the event. In doing so, however, it brought to a close the glory days of the high jump as well. For though the floppers may pass over greater heights than the straddlers, they do so in long parabolic arcs, landing into a foam pit which stands three feet off the ground to cushion their unprotected, backward fall.
There is in the Flop technique, and its high-cushioned pit, a lack of the majesty that attended the spiked leaps of those straddle-into-sawdust days. Maybe the difference also lies between a man’s perspective versus that of a boy’s, or the lack of political weight tied to athletics these days, or the absence of import once afforded by the spotlight of mainstream television coverage. For whatever reason, rarely is the high jump a marquee event anymore.
The great jutting jumps of the straddlers John Thomas and Valery Brumel, the epiphany of their pivot, the sigh of an equally great fall into a soft pile of sawdust are all gone now, consigned to the sands of time, but never from the glory of memory. Rest in peace, JT. Say hi to Valery.