Kurt Thomas could have been one of the most famous Olympic athletes of all time. Instead, he made Gymkata.
If you’re like me, you’ve spent every free moment this week watching the Olympic Games. The incredible acts of physical prowess, the displays of teamwork, the heart-wrenching moments between young athletes and their families; for all the product placement and sloppy NBC broadcasts we have to suffer through, there is still a reason why these games are still an international sensation. And all fired up from the dominating performance by Team USA in the gymnastics category, I went searching for just the right movie to write about to honor centuries of Olympic competition. So of course I landed on the cheeseball eighties action movie Gymkata starring former Olympic athlete Kurt Thomas as a professional gymnast turned international spy.
To a modern viewer, Kurt Thomas seems almost indistinguishable from the other miscast action stars of the eighties. You can compare Thomas’s Jonathan Cabot to, say, John Stamos’s fellow gymnast-spy Lance Stargrove in Never Too Young to Die and never quite figure out where one character ends and the other begins. Bad as Thomas may be in Gymkata, it’s important to remember that he was once considered a generational talent in the sport of gymnastics. A writer for The New York Times referred to Thomas as the “Baryshnikov” of men’s gymnastics; heading into the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Thomas was heavily favored to win America its first gold medal in 48 years of competition.
Then Reagan announced that the United States would be boycotting the Olympics that year and, suddenly, Thomas had a difficult choice to make. Under the old International Olympic Committee rules, only amateur athletes were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. To retain his eligibility for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Thomas would need to turn down a handful of very lucrative business opportunities. In the end, the money was just too much. Instead of competing in the Olympics, Thomas chose to retire and go into business for himself. A 1990 profile of the athlete in the Chicago Tribune outlined just a few of Thomas’s sources of income from the previous decade.
He had a gymnastics school, a gymnastics camp, a job with ABC-TV as a commentator. His contract with Sea World alone was worth $1.3 million in 1985. His income that year and in 1984 was reported at $300,000.
One such business opportunity was the film Gymkata. Based on a novel by Dan Tyler Moore, Gymkata was a shockingly misguided attempt by MGM Studios to capitalize on the newfound popularity of gymnastics as an Olympic sport… and, of course to turn Kurt Thomas into an action movie star. In interviews, Thomas describes his abbreviated Hollywood career as the result of a chance call from one of the producers of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. This producer – I assume Fred Weintraub – had seen Thomas in a television commercial and wanted to discuss the possibility of focusing a movie on his athleticism. To shoot the film, Weintraub brought in Robert Clouse, whom the producer had previously collaborated with on movies like Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones.
There isn’t a lot of logic to Gymkata’s script, but let’s try to talk it out anyways. Thomas plays Jonathan Cabot, an Olympic athlete and recent recruit of the American Central Intelligence Agency. According to Cabot’s contact, the CIA has targeted the small country of Parmistan as the perfect spot for their Star Wars Early Warning System. There’s only one catch: Parmistan is not a particularly progressive country, and to open negotiations with the royal family on a satellite relay, Cabot must first win “The Game,” a death match between participants and members of the royal army. Whoever wins “The Game” is granted a single favor by the King of Parmistan – seriously – and, as Cabot soon finds out, the favor of the country’s beautiful Princess Rubali (Tetchie Agbayani). As the film unfolds, there are double-crosses, attempted coups, and even a story line involving Cabot’s missing father that has maybe the most hilarious payoff in film history, but much of that must be seen to truly be believed.
You know those movies where a professional wrestler like Dwayne Johnson or John Cena tries to make a name for themselves as an action star and the fight choreographer mixed in a few signature grapples just in case we weren’t paying attention? Turn those scenes into their own feature-length movie and you may sort of understand the approach that Gymkata takes with its male lead. Nearly every part of the environment – often including the enemies themselves – is fodder for Thomas’s peculiar brand of gymnastic martial arts. Cabot holds entire conversations with himself by flipping (literally) back and forth between each speaking role; he also manages to turn every piece of pipe he sees into a horizontal bar routine. No moment is quite as egregious, though, as a pommel horse routine Thomas performs while surrounding by the villagers in the film’s final action sequence. I knew those steel rods protruding from the village well seems suspiciously well placed.
In other words, Gymkata is a disaster. Faced with a poor screenplay, a non-actor in the leading role, and a bizarre mixture of martial arts and floor routines, critics gave Gymkata the trouncing it so desperately deserved. Michael Blowen of The Boston Globe wrote that Gymkata “makes about as much sense as its ridiculous title.” Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune declared the film so bad that “it comes dangerously close to being good.” In the Phildelphia Daily News, film critic Joe Baltake revealed that the regular projectionist for his screening did not even bother to show up; “I can understand why,” Baltake wrote. “The man has good taste.” Still, as with every bad film, Gymkata managed to find its audience nearly two decades later. The film won DVD Decision 2006, an online competition hosted by Warner Brothers that allowed fans to choose which titles in the Warner archives would be given their first-ever DVD release. Since then, Gymkata has been a heavyweight on the bad movie circuit, being named one of the worst action movies every by sites like ScreenRant and Cracked.com.
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The film’s renewed popularity does come with something of a bittersweet footnote for Thomas. Although Thomas chose to step away from competitive gymnastics prior 1984 Olympic Games, the rest of the American gymnastic teams showed up that summer in a big, bag way. Not only did the men’s gymnastics team win the all-around gold medal for the first time since 1904, the story of the Olympic Games was female gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who broke the United States’ losing streak and became the first individual all-around gold medalist in American history. Retton was named the Sports Illustrated “Sportswoman of the Year” and became the first official spokesperson for Wheaties cereal; Kurt Thomas, as the Chicago Tribune piece notes, would lose most of his savings in a messy divorce from his second wife and never qualify to compete in the Olympic Games.
We may never know what Thomas’s legacy would have been had he stuck with his Olympic career – if Thomas would have shared in or even surpassed the Olympic immortality achieved by Retton – but we will always have a copy of Gymkata on DVD to help bridge those four-year gaps between summer games. The sports fan in me cannot help but feel bad for the opportunities that Thomas missed in choosing to give up his Olympic status. Then again, how often do you get to make one movie, let alone a movie that has brought laughter to countless thousands of fans? Gymkata may not be the legacy that Thomas deserves, but it’s the one he’s got. Honestly, he could do a whole helluva lot worse.