He lost to two Russians in 1960. And then he fell to a Russian again in 1964.
John Thomas from Boston was a favorite to win the high jump in Tokyo, but could not meet the heightened expectations of a country. Thomas and the gold medalist, Valery Brumel, both cleared a height of 2.18 meters, but neither could clear 2.20 meters. Due to the way high jumping is scored, Brumel had fewer attempts than Thomas on an earlier jump, so won the gold on a tie-breaker.
As he told Stars and Stripes, “I think I did a good job. I wasn’t outjumped. I don’t know how close I came to clearing the bar on that last try. Everyone said I was close, but I don’t know. I felt something hit…it just wasn’t good enough this time.”
Thomas also revealed that he would return home and have an operation on a hernia, a condition that had been identified earlier in the year. But nothing hurt him more than what he perceived as a bitter public and press. In a press conference the day prior to the finals,
“I don’t care what the people think,” the AP quoted him as saying “I am on my own. I can’t trust fans and supposed well-wishers any more. They are fickle and vacillating. If I win, they’re with me. If I lose, they’re the first to desert me and call me a bum. They have no use for losers. They don’t give credit to a man for trying. They have appreciation only for the champion the man who finishes first. I felt proud at getting a bronze medal. But everybody else thought I was a goat. People who had been slapping me on the back ignored me as if I had the plague. I was called a quitter, a man with no heart. It left me sick.”
His rival, Brumel, felt that Thomas was treated unfairly, telling Sports Illustrated that the jumper from Boston faced a “torrent of abuse”.
His coach, Tom Duffy, also thought Thomas had it tough, as he explained to the AP after the Tokyo Games. “He was too young for that kind of competition. But when you’re the best your country has, what can you do? And make no mistake, he’s the best the country has.”