Passing of a Hero (John Thomas), by Toni Reavis, note by Larry Eder

Toni Reavis' blog is something that should be read over and over. Reavis has an appreciation for language that few others do. An example of his writing, descriptive and elegant, is his tribute of the great John Thomas, who died on January 15, 2013, at the age of 71. Reading the tribute, one can almost hear Reavis reading the piece on the radio, and seeing the great high jumper compete. 

Thomas, the 1960 Olympic bronze medalist, and 1964 Olympic silver medalist,  was one of the great icons of the sport. Thomas' duel with Valeriy Brumel, who took the gold in 1964 (silver in 1960), lasted five hours before Brumel took the gold. In the following blog, Toni Reavis gives the reader a beautiful picture of the competitions, and the differences in the styles between Valeriy Brumel, and John Thomas. It is wonderful reading. 

I truly wish I had written this one. 

Please pass this one around, it should, like John Parker's Once a Runner, be read out loud. 


by Toni Reavis

John Thomas of Boston passed away Tuesday at the age of 71. 

     I got to know John during my quarter-century living in Boston. A soft-spoken gentleman, John was one of my boyhood heroes along with former mile record holder Jim Ryun.  Getting to meet your heroes later in life as real people, and finding out that they were every bit as you'd hoped they'd be is one of the true pleasures life can offer.

The following is an excerpt from my March 25, 2012 post High Jump Heroes which spoke to my life-long reverence for 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 brutal St. Louis summers when the heat and humidity fought to reach 100 first - then stay the longest - the shade cast from those old squirrel-bearing trees represented the fringe ground of relief in a world bounded by sweat and discomfort. Strung at a height of around seven feet between those two trees ran a rusty twisted wire on which my mother used to hang potted flowers, part of the riot of colors contained in our yard in the blazing  summer sun.  But that twisted, rusty wire always represented something more to my agitated young mind than a tree level or 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, or hopping over the hedge mom had planted out front along the sidewalk, 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 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 athletic heroes were Olympic high jumpers John Thomas of Boston, and his great rival Valery Brumel of the Soviet Union.  Between the two of 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 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 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 John Thomas, the powerful young black American with the neatly trimmed flat-top, and the transcendent Mr. Brumel, the smaller, but more agile leaper from the USSR.  As a testament to the distinction of the two men, Thomas was voted the top athlete of the first 75 years of the Millrose Games, the indoor games institution held each year (until 2012) at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Thomas Rising!

In his blue U.S.A. singlet and white shorts Thomas would approach the bar with a calculated but 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 invisible chains of gravity that still clung invisibly to his sentient form.  And as he rose, he carried with him the massed air around him 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, 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 final contact with the bar.

Thomas in full flight

In those days before the Fosbury Flop style of jumping was born, the landing pits consisted mostly of sand, sawdust, even wood chips.  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, causing the crowd to rise in massed wonder at the glory of his achievement.  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!

Balletic Brumel

Defying gravity's command, Brumel soared with an all but insouciant lift.  The leap, his turn, and fall were of a piece, his hips opening to yogic proportions to avoid final conflict with the bar. He was like an arc of red paint flying from the bristles of a brush, the majesty of his articulation a thing of pure beauty. Balanchine, himself, never choreographed a more aesthetically pleasing physicality.

While John Thomas was the first man to clear 7' indoors, 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 recall the crushing morning when I went to the front porch to pick up the St. Louis Globe Democrat, only to read the headline, 'Thomas Takes Bronze in the High Jump'.  Reading further I learned that my hero had been beaten by two Russians, Robert Shavlakadze, and Brumel.

Flexible Flyer

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 Williamsearning 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.  I kept a picture of his 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 while I was on a visit from out of town.  Men came and sawed up its fallen length and discarded the old rusted wire.  A flowerbed marks the spot where the tree stump remains.

Where Dreams are Made

The great Brumel has fallen as well, in early 2003 after a long illness, though at the too-young age of 60.  John Thomas has now joined him after his allotted three score and eleven. 

The Brumel-Thomas rivalry was the last of the great straddle-era duels, 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 best 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 higher 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 and awe 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 child'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, consigned to the sands of time, but never from the glory of memory.


Toni Reavis | January 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Tags: John ThomasValery Brumel | Categories: Uncategorized | URL:

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