Four years ago Kurt Thomas looked like the right man in the right place at the right time to really put his sport on the map. By that summer of 1979, Thomas was already America's most famous male gymnast of all time - and the first representative of his sport ever voted the Sullivan Award as the nation's No. 1 amateur athlete. More glory beckoned at the world championships coming up in December of that year, with everything to be topped off at the Moscow Olympics.
Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US-led boycott of the 1980 games, and the end of a lot of dreams. It was a blow to all prospective Olympians, of course, but in this case it was a blow to an entire sport.
Men's gymnastics had never enjoyed too much popularity in the United States, and this was reflected in the scarcity of boys' programs throughout the country. But that had been the case in women's and girls' competition, too, until the Olympic exploits of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci launched a boom which continues to this day. Naturally, those concerned were hoping that a big showing by Thomas in Moscow would do similar things on the male side.
Indeed, even without that opportunity, Kurt has been able to bring a great deal more visibility to his sport and to spark a fairly substantial growth in boys' programs over the last few years. Meanwhile, one can only speculate how much bigger it all might have been.
Thomas turned pro shortly after the boycott decision, and since then has spent his time touring in shows, working as a TV commentator, making public appearances, operating his own gym in Arizona, running a summer camp, etc. It's all been fun and reasonably lucrative, though obviously not quite the same in terms of fame or excitement. But he says he has no second thoughts - even now, with another Olympics just around the corner.
''No, I'm enthusiastic about the things I'm doing now,'' he said recently during a national tour as co-chairman of a nationwide March of Dimes campaign sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken. ''I feel very fortunate that I built the name I did and was chosen for this post. And I'll be in Los Angeles next year; it will just be in a different capacity (with ABC-TV).''
Thomas's career story is pretty well known at this point. A small child (he was only 4 ft. 9 in. and 77 pounds as a freshman at Miami Central High School), Kurt was always very agile and a good athlete for his size. One day at age 14 he happened to see a junior college gymnastics team in practice, and was immediately fascinated by the sport. Later he became even more so when he realized that this was one athletic activity where his eventual 5-5, 126-pound stature wouldn't be a disadvantage, and might even help him, since a small gymnast has the potential to develop greater strength in proportion to his size and can also snap into a tight tuck position more quickly.
Fortunately, the sport was just being introduced at his high school, and when he went out for the team, the coach recognized his potential talent and pushed him to develop it. Kurt took it from there, eventually getting a scholarship to Indiana State, making the 1976 Olympic team, and going on to numerous national and world titles. He even achieved the rare distinction of having a move named for him - the Thomas Flair, a series of whirling midair leg scissors which he created for his pommel horse routine and later also incorporated into his floor exercise.
When Thomas won the latter event in 1978 at Strasbourg, France, he became the first American male gymnast ever to capture a world championship gold medal (Marcia Frederick duplicated the feat on the women's side at the same meet), and the first to win gold in any international competition since the 1932 Olympics. A year later, when the championships were held in Fort Worth, Texas, Kurt won two more golds in individual events plus the silver in the all-around competition. The stage was set for the Olympics, where the USA hadn't won any gymnastics gold in nearly half a century. But then came the decision not to participate.
''We were all very unhappy and disappointed,'' he said of the gymnasts affected by that action, ''but I think most of us have rebuilt our careers. You have to look toward the future and be positive. You can't dwell on the past and on the negatives.
''At least I was on an Olympic team, although I was just 19 and very inexperienced then,'' he said. (Men's gymnastics differs from the women's version in that teen-agers seldom have any realistic hope of beating out their stronger, more experienced elders.)
''Also, I had those world championships,'' he added. ''At Fort Worth I was competing against the same guys I would have been up against in Moscow, so those are my Olympic medals. It's not the same, but it's similar.''
As for those who will represent the United States in Los Angeles next year, Thomas is cautiously optimistic in terms of possible individual medals. He is less confident about any team success, however, in view of the perennial powerhouse squads sent to the games by the Soviet Union and Japan, plus the awesome group of Chinese gymnasts that has come to the fore in the last couple of years.
''Mitch Gaylord and Peter Vidmar are probably the top threats,'' he said. ''Individually, either or both could do it. But I don't think realistically there's too much chance for team medals.''
What if the team still had Thomas and Ron Galimore, another outstanding 1980 national squad member who also turned pro? Might there have been a shot for a team medal then?
''I doubt it even with that lineup,'' he said. ''The Chinese and the Russians are so far beyond us teamwise because of their depth. The best we'd be doing would be pushing for third place - and that would be a long shot.''
Thomas, in fact, applied for reinstatement as an amateur in view of today's more liberal attitude on such things in athletic circles.
''I petitioned because my college coach wanted me to,'' he said. '' The national federation said they would do it if the international federation did, but I never heard anything, so I assume they rejected the petition. But maybe it will help the next guy.
''If it had happened, I would have gone for it,'' he added. '' But it's too late now for 1984 - and I would only do it for the Olympics.''