When I was very young, Kurt Thomas came to visit my gymnastics club in Rockford, Ill. I’m not sure if I was aware of who he was at the time, but the excitement in the week leading up to his arrival was as if The Beatles were coming to town. Or, at that time, maybe Rick Springfield or Duran Duran.
Kurt Thomas was the first American men’s gymnast to become a crossover superstar, in the vein of Cathy Rigby, who preceded Thomas by almost a decade. Yesterday, Thomas died at the age of 64, two weeks after suffering a stroke as the result of a tear of the basilar artery in the brain stem.
Thomas was among a group of talented American Olympians who were primed to compete for medals in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the U.S. wound up boycotting because of Cold War tensions, specifically the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For a gymnast, four years is a lifetime. Thomas, who had won gold on both floor exercise and high bar at the 1979 World Championships, never won another international medal after the 1980 American Cup.
Thomas elected not to compete in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, choosing instead to forego his amateur status for opportunities in the entertainment world, including the 1985 movie Gymkata, which turns out to be terrible as an adult but which I thought was cool as hell when I was a kid. In it, Thomas is sent by a mysterious U.S. Intelligence agency to play “The Game,” in the country of Parmistan (I know). All foreigners have to play “The Game,” a deadly athletic competition that is like being chased by Afghan warlords while competing in American Ninja Warrior. If you win “The Game,” you get to not be murdered and you are granted one wish. The U.S. wants Thomas to use his wish to install a satellite monitoring system in Parmistan, so the U.S. can prevent a nuclear attack, which was basically the plot line for every movie in the 80s. Anyway, this is about Kurt Thomas and not about Gymakta but you should definitely watch it. We don’t get American Anthem without Gymkata, people.
The decision to go into film may not have been wise move for a multitude of reasons, as the men’s gymnastics team, led by Bart Connor, went on to win the U.S’s first-ever team gold medal at those 84 Games.
Thomas attempted a comeback for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona at the age of 36, positively ancient for a gymnast, and made it all the way to the Olympic trials before failing to make the team.
Thomas will be remembered specifically for his signature move, dubbed the Thomas Flair, which you absolutely know because it’s the only cool move on the pommel horse. It looks like this:
The move, which has since been incorporated into floor exercises and even dance, wasn’t invented by Thomas. However, in gymnastics, moves are named after the first person to perform them in international competition. Hence, the Thomas Flair.
All told, Kurt Thomas won eleven medals for U.S. Gymnastics in major international competitions at a time when men’s gymnastics was dominated by the Soviet Union and Japan. After retiring, he went on to work in sports broadcasting for both ABC and ESPN, and ran the Kurt Thomas Gymnastics Training Center in Frisco, Texas, with his wife Rebecca, whom he married in 2003.