ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
As a teenager, John Thomas was a superstar.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Track and field sensation of the year was the seven feet, inch-and-a-quarter high jump of John Curtis Thomas in Madison Square Garden. A dazzling new world record for the 17-year-old Boston U freshman.
SIEGEL: In the 1960 Summer Olympics, in Rome, Thomas was 19 years old and he was the surest of sure things. Instead, Thomas ran up against two terrific Soviet high jumpers who placed ahead of him. And one of them became his rival of several years and his friend for several more. John Thomas died this week at age 71.
And joining us now to talk about him is Bill Littlefield, long time host of the NRP program, ONLY A GAME. Hi, Bill.
BILL LITTLEFIELD, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first, tell us about John Thomas, the high jump and the Olympics.
LITTLEFIELD: Well, I think you've encapsulated it quite well. He was the surest of sure things. He was only 19 years old, everybody thought that he would be the guy who would beat the Soviets - which, of course, at that point was a very important thing to do - and he came in third, which is extraordinary, I mean quite a great performance for anybody to win an Olympic medal.
But in the context of the expectations, many writers here in the U.S. said he choked, he blew it at the most important possible time. And he was a great disappointment.
SIEGEL: He had been the first man to clear seven feet indoors.
LITTLEFIELD: Right. And said after that, as a matter of fact, I wondered if I'd ever do anything that great again.
LITTLEFIELD: He was aware of the enormity of what he had done.
SIEGEL: Now, in Rome, he took the bronze. Two Soviets, Chavlakadze and Valery Brumel, came in ahead of him. But it was Brumel who emerged as the other great high jumper of the 1960s.
LITTLEFIELD: Yes, exactly. And interestingly, again, in the context of the Cold War, they became friends and continued to correspond for some time after the Olympics. And John Thomas proudly claimed that he and Brumel had a fine relationship, which, again, nowadays might not seem like such a big deal, but at a time when Americans were being encouraged to regard the Soviets as evil incarnate, it was quite an extraordinary thing.
SIEGEL: He also had some bad luck. He had a terrible injury that hurt his game a lot.
LITTLEFIELD: Numbers of injuries and bad luck and I think also psychological bad luck where, you know, a 19-year-old is told that he's let his nation down. I mean, that's not an easy thing for anyone to bear.
SIEGEL: Well, you met him years later in the Boston area. Tell us about him.
LITTLEFIELD: Well, John was the athletic director at Roxbury Community College in Boston and I met him about 12 years ago. I was doing a story on the basketball team there, the men's' basketball team and the coach of that team. And John was about as gracious and pleasant as he could possibly be, a great sense of humor and incredibly proud of the achievements of those young men.
These are guys who would never had gone to college if it hadn't been for Roxbury Community College and John and the head coach, Malcolm Wynn, managed to get every single one of them into a four-year school. Some of them have gone on to have extraordinary lives, fellows who were, in many cases, the only or first people in their families ever to go to college. And I think John was as proud of that achievement as he would have been of gold medals several decades before.
SIEGEL: And by that time, deep into adulthood, how had he processed the events of 1960 and then another disappointment in 1964 at the games?
LITTLEFIELD: Yeah, slightly less of a disappointment 'cause he got a silver instead of a bronze the second time around, but I remember a conversation I had with him in 2003. I was writing an essay about the Olympics and he said, you know, the Olympics has really changed since I was in there. He said, now it's become such a television spectacle and television, all they want is the good, the bad and the ugly so that they'll have storylines.
And I said, that's an interesting way to put it, John. How would you consider yourself, the good, the bad or the ugly? And he paused for a minute and then he smiled and he said, I've come around to thinking of myself as the good. I thought that was very nice.
SIEGEL: Well, Bill Littlefield, thanks a lot for talking with us.
LITTLEFIELD: Thank you. Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: We've been talking about John Thomas, the great high-jumper of the 1960s who died on Tuesday. He was 71. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.