In Strasbourg, France, in 1978, at the gymnastics world championships, the medal ceremony for the floor exercise was delayed before starting. Nobody knew why.
It was because The Star-Spangled Banner had not been queued up to play.
That was because organizers never thought they would need it. With good reason, they never thought an American man would medal —let alone win gold.
Kurt Thomas changed all of that.
Thomas was a trailblazer in his sport, the past tense suddenly fitting but the legacy secure.
The first U.S. male gymnast to win gold and be a world champion died quietly at 64 the other day, two weeks after suffering a severe stroke. He is survived by wife Beckie, their children Hunter and Kassidy, and his son Kurt from a previous marriage.
Thomas had had bad flulike symptoms at those world championships and considered withdrawing. Instead, he changed his sport. In a 2003 interview Thomas shared his emotions from that day he’d made history in ‘78.
“I was singing the national anthem, and at the end of it I closed my eyes, and I dropped my head and I remembered that moment, and I can still remember that moment to this day,” he said. “That is one of the greatest moments of my life.”
The nation fights big, loud battles now. The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. The unemployment and economic fallout. The concerns over a recurrence as states open back up. We wonder what sports will look like as they return with no fans. Now, looming over all of that, the racial tensions, protests and outcry for justice over the killing of George Floyd.
Things like the death of a man whose athletic pinnacle came more than 40 years earlier can get lost.
Thomas deserves better.
He takes a piece of us with him. Thomas was born in Miami, to a father who managed a meat company and a mother who was a secretary. His dad died when Kurt was 7. His mom stepped up.
As a boy Kurt happened one day to wander past a men’s gymnastics team practice at Miami-Dade Junior College. He stopped to watch.
“I saw this guy swinging on a high bar and I just thought it was kind of a neat sport,” he said.
Thomas would become men’s gymnastics’ first big national star, his heyday coinciding with the birth of ESPN. He appeared on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” five times.
The year after historic gold in 1978, he set an American record for most medals won in a single world championships with six. The record stood for 40 years, until Simone Biles tied it in 2018.
Wrote the New York Times then, of Thomas: “He is taking a sport and grafting on new elements to make it an art. He is men’s gymnastics’ Baryshnikov.”
Thomas was so inventive two moves are named in his honor: the Thomas Flair, a pommel horse move, and the Thomas Salto, his signature skill in floor exercise.
He should have owned the 1980 Summer Olympics.
“We’ll be heard of in Moscow, you can bet on that,” Thomas said in ‘79, of the next summer’s Games. “It’s time for the world to look out for American gymnasts. We’ve arrived.”
The United States boycotted the ‘80 Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Thomas, a heavy favorite to win gold, was as robbed of his moment as any American athlete.
He had been an Olympian in 1976 but hadn’t yet reached his peak. By ‘84 he had turned professional and could not compete. Pros eventually could compete and Thomas gave it one last shot in 1992 but by then was 36.
His golden opportunity had been lost to world politics.
“People talk to me all the time, ‘Aren’t you really still bitter about that Olympic thing,’?” he said once. “I say, ‘Yeah, but, you know, I went to the world championships and won. I went to the Olympics, and I’m an Olympian.”
At Indiana State University he had been the second-biggest man on campus to some guy named Larry Bird.
Thomas would be the the first gymnast to win the James E. Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in America.
Thomas played a gymnastics martial artist sent to secure a missile-base site in the Caspian Sea in the 1985 film, “Gymkata” — a movie so bad it has become a cult classic. He dabbed in broadcasting after retiring from his sport.
The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame inducted Thomas in 2003.
He and his wife owned and ran a gymnastics training center in Frisco, Texas.
Beckie told International Gymnastics Magazine, “I lost my universe.”
American men’s gymnastics? It lost a pioneer. Kurt Thomas lost his chance at a likely Olympic gold medal, but his legacy rises above it and endures.