The letter resembles something that a member of the family might find now in the pages of a book or slipped behind a dresser drawer. The man, John Thomas, once the most famous high jumper in creation, died last week at the age of 71 in Brockton, Mass., during vascular surgery. The letter survives, written by a 19-year-old boy.
The boy’s life was changed forever one afternoon in Rome, Italy, during the 1960 Olympics. He was supposed to be a star in those Games. Everybody said so. He was a cinch in the high jump, a lock, not only to win a gold medal, but to beat the Russians, to score geopolitical points in the enduring Cold War that had so many fronts at the time. He was the world record holder at 7 feet, 3-3/4inches, had jumped that height five times since April. The Russians had only one man who barely had scraped over seven feet. God bless America. This would be easy.
Turned out it wasn’t.
In a long day at the Stadio Olimpico, the sophomore at Boston University finished third with the bronze medal. The Russians took the first two spots, gold and silver, and a third member of their team lost bronze only due to fewer misses. Thomas failed all three attempts at the winning height of 7-feet-1, a height he had cleared dozens of times in the past. The world quickly fell on his head.
How could he lose? What was he thinking? What was he doing? Did he wear the wrong shoes? Eat the wrong food? Why wasn’t he howling at the heavens? Didn’t he know that he had lost? Didn’t he care? What happened? The questions weren’t questions; they were indictments.
“What do you want – blood?” injured teammate Charlie Dumas, the first man in history to clear seven feet, asked. “John jumped seven feet, but the others simply were better on this particular day. He’s just a boy – and the pressure has been on him all year, month after month. And never has there been greater pressure in high jumping than here today. Just John left alone against three Russians.”
The boy was staggered by the reaction more than his finish. Hate arrived at his Olympic village address in piles of thin airmail envelopes. Disappointment arrived on strangers’ faces. People he thought were new friends simply disappeared. The press coverage was not good. He had not only let himself down, he had let his country down. Blah-blah.
He stayed out of sight for a couple of days, was happy to leave for a post-Olympic European tour as soon as he could. That was when he wrote his letter, eight days after his event. The recipient was Ed Flanagan, his coach at BU.
Sept. 10, 1960
How is everything in the big city? Everything here is good. Well, the big meet is over and we have left Rome. I sure am glad that we finally got out of there.
If you want to know the truth I’m not as impressed as I thought I would be. Maybe I expected too much. The people were a real pain. Reporters and autograph hounds just would not leave you alone. When I finally got to the village I did not at one time have a single 10 minutes to myself. If I went to eat, there were reporters. When I went to the basketball games there again were publicity agents, especially Russians.
Although Americans went to the recreation hall at night to relax and dance, even when I relaxed or danced I was like a freak. Everybody watching and taking pictures of every move I made. What really got me, Ed, was when I was practicing.
Everything I did from the time I got off the bus when I mopped my brow to the time I got back on the bus was recorded on people’s cameras throughout the world. At one time the coach made me stop working out and I had to be escorted off the field so that I could be protected and others could work out.
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.
I think I’m taking it the right way.
I’m not going to compete in the decathlon. (Which had been an option.) I hope the people at home are not disappointed. I’ll try to do a great job at everything in the future.
See you in a second.
The letter found its way into the public prints, which is how it can be read now. The boy kept at his craft, had a series of wonderful competitions against Valery Brumel, his 18-year-old Russian counterpart who finished second in Rome. In the Games in Tokyo, four years later, Brumel took the gold on fewer misses, and Thomas took the silver, both at 7 feet, 1-3/4 inches. There was some personal redemption, but the public never really forgave the boy who did not win.
Feelings were not so much different in the long ago than they are in the social-media now. Mercy always has been in short supply on the sports page.
“I learned a lot by not finishing first,” John Thomas told the Boston Globe many years later, a quote that was repeated in his obituary. “If I’d won, I never would have learned as much about people as I did.”
At the end of a full life, he is survived by two sons, three daughters, 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. And a sweet letter.