And so Summer is almost over, the Olympics have been over for more than a week, but I’d like to close this Olympic month with one last blog about past athletes.
This is the story of the man who is considered the ultimate athlete, who won everything at the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912… and whose records are not in the Olympic books.
The beginning of the Bright Path
Jim Thorpe was born in 1887 near what is today Prague, Oklahoma. A child of Sac and Fox and Potawatomi Indian bloodlines, as well and French and Irish roots, he was given the name Wa-Tho-Huk (Bright Path) but christened Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe (James Francis Thorpe)
He spent his early life trapping and hunting with his father in the wilderness, where he started developing his legendary endurance via extensive excursions in Indian Territory. At age six, he was already a hunter and could spend hours walking and running.
His father was a horse handler as well as a hunter and Jim learned that trade too before, still a teenager, he lost his parents as well as his twin brother in a matter of a few short years. He then became a ward of government schools.
Always a reticent person, he was never very comfortable when at the center of attention. So that became kind of a personal problem when in 1907, as a student at Carlisle, Pennsylvania – a hybrid trade school and academy devoted to the forcible cultural assimilation of Native American children – he joined a track-and-field program and quickly started to excel everywhere: in the track-and-field specialties as well as baseball, hockey, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, though it was football that finally propelled him to national reckoning.
When in 1912 he was nominated for the US Olympic team for the Games in Stockholm, Sweden, he didn’t accept because he was seeking success. He would have been perfectly happy to follow his father’s path and breed horses the rest of his life, but he wanted to marry his sweetheart, Iva Muller. Her family disapproved of the match, so he accepted to take part in the Olympics to prove that a man could make a good enough living at games to support a family. He followed his dream of a happy life, not that of success and celebrity.
The ultimate athlete at the Stockholm Olympic Games
He just swiped the Games. He won four of the five events of Pentathlon and a week later he overtook the Decathlon, winning basically everything there was to win in those Games.
In the Decathlon, he ran the metric miles in mismatched shoes (his own pair could not be found the morning of the race) in 4 minutes 40,1 seconds, a record that would last until 1972. No one would beat his decathlon overall score for another four Olympics.
King Gustav V of Sweden nominated him the greatest athlete of all time when he awarded him the two gold medals for Pentathlon and Decathlon. In that occasion, Thorpe just dropped his eyes and said a simple “Thanks”. He then avoided all parties he was invited to, the attention of the newspapers, interviews, although he could not avoid the ticker-tape parade in New York City that welcomed him home.
But he never looked for that attention. He distrusted celebrity and avoided the public scrutiny and attention as long as he could.
Unfortunately, a year after his enterprise at the games, he once again became the talk of the nation.
I won ‘em and I know I won ‘em
A newspaper discovered that he had been paid to play minor league in the years 1909 and 1910 and that would strip him of his amateur eligibility.
Thorpe readily admitted to that and that he had been paid a small salary. He also admitted ignorance that that fact would make him ineligible to compete in the Olympic Games. But honesty didn’t pay off.
The IOC demanded that he returned his gold medals, which he did, and his records were written out of the Olympic books. It was as if he had never gone to Stockholm.
But he never championed his cause, not even when he later discovered that many college athletes played on professional teams during the summer, but under assumed names in order to maintain their amateur status. As he would say to his children, “I won ‘em, and I know I won ‘em” and that was everything which mattered to him.
He went on to have an impressive football career, serving as president of the newly born National Football League for a season in 1920.
He started an involvement in the bettering of his people’s lives. In 1922 and 1923 he coached and played on an all Native American football team.
When his athletic career ended in 1928, he turned to the movie industry, where, even if mostly featuring in stereotypical roles of Indians, he worked so that Native Americans were cast into Native American roles (which, at that time, almost never happened) and worked incessantly for his people’s rights.
That was still what he was doing when he died of cancer in 1953.
A late acknowledgment?
It’s commonly believed that Thorpe finally received justice and recognition in 1982 when, after years of public pressure, the IOC delivered two replicas of the Olympic gold medals Thorpe won to his family.
What less commonly known is that his records were never recognized. They are still out of the official Olympic books. So, he who is widely considered the ultimate athlete, who proved his value at the Olympic Games in 1912, is still a ghost of the Olympic Games.
Bio – Jim Thorpe
Smithsonian – Why Are Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Records Still Not Recognized?