Sometimes one performance by one person in a single event catapults an entire sport to a new level of public acceptance and enthusiasm.

Kurt Thomas may have pulled off that trick for men's gymnastics in America with an unexpected silver medal in the world championship all-around Friday night.

America's appetite for gymnastics has been proved by its affection for Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. The U.S. could not put forward a comparable champion of its own.

The U.S. had produced specialists in one apparatus -- Thomas' gold medal in floor exercise at the 1978 world championships is the foremost example.

But, when it came to the decathlon of gymnastics -- the prestigious six-exercise extravaganza called the all-around -- the U.S. had placed only one man or woman higher than eighth place: Thomas' sixth in 1978.

Now, for the first time since these championships began in 1903, America has a peg on which to hang its gymnastic hat -- the 127-pound Thomas, whose constant expression to describe himself is "dynamic and explosive."

Even though the cheerful, chip-on-the-shoulder Thomas might need to carry weights to jockey in a stakes race, he is suddenly a big man world-wide. In time, he may now even become a medium-sized star in his homeland.

Most of the world instinctively agreed with Plato, who wrote: "God, I should say, has given men the two arts -- music and gymnastics." Soon, with Thomas' help, American may concur.

"I'm a born showoff; I like to get my name in front of the public as much as I can," the bold Indiana State graduate says. "Some people say I'm the best-known amateur athlete in the country, but I doubt it."

Thomas leaves little doubt that he would love that distinction and thinks he has a claim on it. Like many male gymnasts, he is the little man (picked on as a kid, he admist) who at 5-feet-5 makes the world of six-footers both gasp and cheer.

In high school, Thomas was the target of bullies. His protector was schoolmate Elvis Peacock who went on to be a star running back at Texas. Now, Thomas only needs protection from crowds of autograph hunters who engulf him here.

Thomas' trademark trick is the flair; it might as well be his nickname. Formal technique and even raw strength are on Thomas' trumps. Imagination and daring are, plus a pinch of come-through-in-the-clutch.

As an illustration of that, the only exercise in which Thomas had never gotten a 9.9 (the equivalent of A-plus)was the vault. On Friday night, after botching two practice vaults badly causing his fans to buzz, Thomas was worried and needed to relax. To compose himself, he walked around on his hands for five minutes, waiting for his turn.

In that moment of crisis, in the dangerous one-try-only vault, Thomas sped down the runway, leaped, did his handspring off the horse, and thereafter a blur of somersaults and twists made a perfect landing for the first 9.9 of his life.

Forunately for the blossoming on gymnastics. Thomas is as electric and controversial with his mouth as he is with his muscles. While Communistbloc stars are monosyllabic, sequestered and perfunctory at best, Thomas speaks his mind.

Since coming here to Texas, Thomas has already criticized his American team, saying three of the six members don't deserve to be on the squad. Also, he has admitted that he was disgusted that teammate Bart Conner nipped him for the high score in qualifying for the .U.S. team.

For the long haul, Conner, who finished fifth in the all-around, conceivably might leave the larger mark. But even he acknowledges that Thomas' approach promotes the sport best. "When I sign autographs," Conner says, "I sometimes sign them 'Kurt Thomas.'"