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”.
They say confidence is key to victory. Competitors smell fear like sharks sense blood. When the Soviet high jumper, Valery Brumel, arrived in Tokyo for the Summer Games, his minders made sure no one would see him.
Since winning silver in Rome in 1960, Brumel drove himself with a ferociousness in numerous competitions leading up to Tokyo, and according to the book, “The Olympic Century Volume 16 – The XVIII Olympiad” by Carl A. Posey, Brumel was feeling “that deepening fatigue that comes from driving the machine too hard, too long.” Additionally, he had just lost the Soviet championship to Robert Shavlakadze, who also beat Brumel for gold in Rome. So he trained in a secluded area in Meiji Park, or stayed hidden in a room with his masseur playing chess.
At this stage, Brumel was beaten and haggard, and his 2.01 meter jumps in practice were far from championship level, They were, however, the best he could do.
When Brumel was at his best, people marveled at his form, what the Russians called “pouring the body over the bar like a cascade of clear water.” This was 1964, four years before Dick Fosbury revolutionized high jumping with his “Fosbury Flop”. In the first half of the Sixties, jumpers were still doing the spin roll, and Brumel’s technique was considered one of the best.
“At the heart of Brumel’s special brand of high jumping was a sequence of carefully orchestrated moves that Nijinsky might have envied. A big, powerfully assembled man, Brumel made his run-up with an awkward-looking sprint as he shifted his elbows forward to compensate for his upper body’s gradual backward lean as he approached the bar. He had trained with weights, so that his takeoff was like the explosive uncoiling of a spring. Then, for a moment, he was flying. To clear the bar, every extremity had to be under the fine, split-second control of a bird’s primary feathers. First the folded right leg went over, then the head, the big, friendly mouth extended in a white grimace of maximum effort. The right arm flipped back, adding thrust to bring the rest of his large body over the bar. Once the left arm cleared, the left leg kicked upward, adding dynamic balance. ”
And yet, as the competition in Tokyo began on October 20, Brumel could barely find his form, or generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to compete for gold. Needing all three attempts, Brumel barely qualified by clearing a height almost every other competitor cleared (2.03 meters). “I appealed to God,” Brumel said later. “Jesus, why are you doing this to me? I’ve never done anyone any harm.”
So on a damp and chilly day on October 21, Brumel started the long slog of the finals, a journey of despair and exhaustion, in which the last man standing would be doing so, barely. As did most of the 20 competitors in the finals, initial jumps of 1.9, 1.95, 2.00, 2.03 and 2.06 meters were easily exceeded. But at 2.09 the competition went from 17 to 10, and then at 2.12, only 5 were left, including Brumel, American’s John Thomas and John Rambo, Swede Stig Pettersson, and Brumel’s Russian rival, Shavlakadze.
Rambo cleared 2.14 meters in one try, but it took Brumel, Thomas and Shavlakadze three attempts, Brumel missing badly in his first two. But something happened when the bar was raised to 2.16. It all came together and the tired Brumel flew over the bar in his first attempt. Thomas made it over in two, while his teammate made it in three, but Pettersen and Shavladkadze crashed out of the competition. And at 2.18 meters, as day ceded to night, Rambo fell by the wayside. At this point, the competition was essentially over.