Until earlier this week, no gymnast had even won the Sullivan Award during a half century of voting. The drought was broken convincingly, though, by Kurt Thomas, who easily outdistanced hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah in balloting for the nation's outstanding amateur athlete of 1979.
In light of Thomas's international achievements -- a gold medal in the floor exercise at the '78 world championships and a gold in the all-around two months ago -- sports writers found it hard not to vote for him. Historically, however, the award, named after the former president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), has most often gone to track athletes (29 winners) and swimmers (seven winners).
This tendency to select athletes who compete individually rathr than on teams , and in less publicized sports, is a factor in there being so few basketball and football recipients. The lone basketball exceptions were Bill Bradley in 1964 and Bill Walton in 1973. Football, meanwhile, hasn't produced a Sullivan winner since 1946, when army quarterback Arnold Tucker succeeded West Point teammate Doc Blanchard, the only other football recipient.
Thomas, who attended Indiana State at the same time as basketball sensation Larry Bird, now trains with the Arizona Stte gymnastics team. Most famous for his "Thomas Flair," the unusual scissoring action of his legs in pommel horse and floor exercise routines, Kurt is the first American male gymnast ever regarded as a serious Olympic gold medal threat. (Peter Kormann's floor exercise bronze medal at Montreal was the first US medal in men's gymnastics of any kind since the 1932 Games.)