TERRE HAUTE —
If anybody could’ve beaten the Soviets, it was Kurt Thomas.
But his best opportunity — on the grandest stage in sports, 30 years ago last week — was denied by politics.
Thomas measured just 5-foot-5, but he stood out on the Indiana State University campus in the late 1970s. The other students knew his face, even if they never bothered to walk over to the “little gym” to watch Thomas and the Sycamore men’s gymnastics team compete. They’d seen him in the Terre Haute newspapers and the ISU Statesman, in Sports Illustrated and on TV talk shows with Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett. Thomas had led ISU — little, oft-overlooked ISU — to the 1977 NCAA men’s title. In 1978, he’d become the first American in 46 years to win a World Championships gold medal. Few students understood his sport, but they’d heard of his leg-swirling, trademark move, the “Thomas flair.”
On campus, he’d become simply “Kurt,” just like “Larry” — Bird, that is, the star of ISU’s phenomenal basketball team.
Everybody knew Kurt was headed for an Olympic showdown at the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. He was the United States’ best chance to beat the perennial gymnastics powers — namely, the host Soviets.
How could people believe such a thing?
Because Thomas had the same competitive fire as his much taller ISU classmate, Bird. Both were making the once-impossible seem probable.
Bart Conner found that out, first-hand.
In 1976, Conner and Thomas were friendly rivals, the biggest names in American gymnastics. Their paths crossed at a skills camp in Wisconsin. Conner, two years younger, starred at the University of Oklahoma, an established gymnastics powerhouse.
Thomas, lightly recruited out of high school in Miami, got his only serious scholarship offer from coach Roger Counsil at upstart Indiana State. Looking back, Conner admits he was “in awe” of the foreign gymnasts, such as Russian champion Nikolai Andrianov.
Thomas was not.
Leaning against a pommel horse in that Wisconsin gym, Conner mentioned the foreigners’ dominance.
“Kurt said, ‘Hey, we can beat those guys,’” Conner recalled last week in a telephone interview from Oklahoma. “And I couldn’t believe how brash that was. To beat them, all we had to do was work a little harder, he said. And then he proceeded to do it.”
Thomas won gold in the floor exercise at the 1978 World Championships in Strasbourg, France. Andrianov placed fourth, behind Japan’s silver medalist Eizo Kenmotsu and Soviet Alexander Dityatin.
“Kurt was the first to beat them,” Conner said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my god, it can be done.’”
He’s confident Thomas would’ve been a contender for a gold, silver or bronze medal two years later at the Moscow Olympics. Thomas never got that chance.
‘Bitter’ pill for athletes
Soviet Union forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979. President Jimmy Carter responded with an ultimatum: If the Soviets did not withdraw by Feb. 20, 1980, the United States would boycott the Moscow Summer Games in protest. In the weeks leading up to the deadline, Thomas and other American athletes assumed the issue would get resolved.
“We were thinking, ‘There’s no way we’re going to get played like this,’” Thomas remembered last week from his gymnastics center in Frisco, Texas.
But the stalemate between the two Cold War adversaries persisted.
Thomas was not a political person. “Not at all,” he said. “Living in Terre Haute, I walked to the gym in the snow, and I walked back to my room in the quad [on campus]. Other than that, I might go to a frat house, or go to a bar and have a beer with friends, or to the library, but that’s about it.”
Nonetheless, politics invaded his destiny.
The Soviets ignored the U.S. deadline. Carter ordered the boycott, and later the U.S. Olympic Committee House of Delegates, under pressure, voted to support the president’s decision. Sixty-four other nations joined the U.S. boycott. The 200 would-be American Olympians were mostly confused and upset.
“I supported it, based on the idea that I’ll do whatever it is my country wants me to do,” Thomas said, “but we were all bitter about it initially.”
Fellow American gymnast Ron Galimore, now vice president of events for USA Gymnastics in Indianapolis, said, “I was devastated.”
When the U.S. athletes were invited to visit the White House, presumably to discuss the boycott, Conner said they wound up in a meeting with Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Instead of explaining the boycott, Brzezinski described the Persian Gulf, using a map and a pointer. “I was like, ‘What?’” Conner recalled. “I remember just sort of walking out and shaking my head.”
Officially, the Americans still selected a 1980 team by conducting an Olympic Trials, despite the declaration of the boycott. Conner and Galimore made that squad. Thomas chose not to participate in the Trials and agreed to serve as a gymnastics commentator for NBC’s Olympics coverage.
Gymnasts, at the time, needed to maintain their amateur status to compete in the Olympics. Conner, 22, continued for another four years and won two golds in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. At 24, Thomas decided to retire from amateur competition in 1980. That summer should have been the peak of his career. With Thomas and the U.S. athletes gone, the Soviet bloc countries ruled the Olympics gymnastics, as usual. Dityatin won the all-around gold medal. In the floor exercise, Roland Bruckner of East Germany — who placed seventh behind Thomas in Strasbourg — won gold in Moscow.
“There’s no guarantee I was going to win the gold or even place,” Thomas said. “I would have to really have been on my game and turned in a perfect performance. But I felt like I was in the best shape of my life.”
Life went on
The boycott proved ineffective, and the athletes basically paid the price. The Soviets stayed in what became an unwinnable Afghan war until 1989. The Soviets’ retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles also achieved little; those Games set profit and TV ratings records. Perhaps the ’80 boycott’s only value was as a deterrent of future walkouts; threats of a boycott of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, over China’s history of human rights violations, failed to take hold.
Life went on for Thomas. He wrote a popular 1980 book “Kurt Thomas on Gymnastics” for Simon & Schuster, taped commercials for Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Campbell’s Soup, and starred in the 1985 MGM action film “Gymkata” that has become a B-movie cult classic. Just as “Gymkata” was released, Thomas’ alma mater, ISU, eliminated its gymnastics program, a decision he says he understands. “It’s really hard to justify keeping a sport if it’s not making money,” he said.
Nowadays, the 54-year-old Thomas and his wife, Beckie, a dancer, run Kurt Thomas Gymnastics Training center in Frisco. They have a 13-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.
It’s been more than a decade since Thomas visited ISU. He also rarely mentally revisits the 1980 boycott, unless asked. And he doesn’t begrudge Carter, who he met during a trip to the White House following Thomas’ landmark gold medal performance in Strasbourg.
The boycott “was all about money and politics and it was all very confusing at the time,” he said, “but it was what our country decided and what our president thought was best.”
Still, plenty of Hauteans, ISU alums and Americans think Thomas deserved the chance to, as he put it, beat those guys.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.