Greatest all-around athlete of the 20th centuryby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Jim Thorpe was born near Prague, Indian Territory (now in Oklahoma). He went to school at Haskell Institute, in Lawrence, Kansas, and at Carlisle Indian School. In 1907, his first year at Carlisle, Thorpe displayed remarkable prowess in football and track and won the attention of Pop Warner, then Carlisle's coach of these sports. Thorpe performed brilliantly on the varsity football team, but in 1909 he withdrew from the school and went to North Carolina. There he worked as a farmhand and played semiprofessional baseball. Returning to Carlisle in 1911, Thorpe played halfback on the football team, contributing largely to Carlisle victories over some of the most powerful teams in the country. In 1911 and 1912 he made the All-American team. Thorpe excelled during this period in many other sports, including track and field, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, ice hockey, swimming, boxing, tennis, and archery.
Stories about Jim Thorpe's natural athletic ability abound. It is said that he first participated in a track event in 1907, when, as a 19-year-old student in street clothes, he walked past the high jump pit during a meet and decided to give it a try. He cleared 5 feet 9 inches to set a school record. Later that year he went out for the football team. Inserted into his first game, he galloped to a 65-yard touchdown on his second play. The next time he touched the football he broke free for an 85-yard touchdown.
It is difficult to verify such stories. But there's certainly no question to the truth about Thorpe's greatest triumph—his gold medal wins in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. His resounding victories in those multisport events established him as the top athlete of his era and, along with his success in football and baseball, helped him gain a reputation as one of the best athletes of all time. In 1950 a panel of sports experts polled by the Associated Press named Thorpe the greatest male athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
The Stockholm Games, the fifth modern Olympics, were the first in which
countries from five continents participated. The Games served as a model
of organization and participation for future Olympic Games. Thorpe first
competed in the pentathlon, which consisted of five events: the standing
long jump, discus, javelin, 200-meter dash, and 1500-meter run. (The pentathlon
event, which differs from the modern pentathlon, was discontinued in Olympic
competition in 1924.) He finished third among the competitors in the javelin
and first in the other four events to win the gold medal easily. “Although
we expected that Thorpe would win the pentathlon, his great performance
exceeded our hopes,” Matt Halpin of the United States Olympic Committee
told the New York Times.
The next day Thorpe placed fourth in the overall long jump competition and then finished seventh in the high jump. The decathlon was next. The decathlon took three days to complete and consisted of ten events: the 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, discus, 110-meter hurdles, pole vault, javelin, and 1500 meters. Although Thorpe had competed in most of those events in meets, he had never before entered a decathlon and had only begun working on the discus throw two months earlier.
On the first day, which was rainy, Thorpe finished third in the 100 meters, with a time of 11.2 seconds; second in the long jump, leaping 22 feet, 3? inches (6.79 meters); and first in the shot put with a throw of 42 feet 3? inches (12.89 meters), which would have earned him sixth place in the shot put medal competition. On the second day, which was sunny and beautiful, Thorpe easily bettered the field in the high jump, registering a jump of 6 feet, 1? inches (1.87 meters), and in the 110-meter hurdles, in which he clocked a decathlon record of 15.6 seconds. He finished fourth in the 400 meters, with a time of 52.2 seconds.
The third day was the final day of the Olympics, and Thorpe came into it leading the decathlon field. But the events in the third round—pole vault, javelin, and 1500 meters—were not his strongest. However, he finished third in the pole vault with a vault of 10 feet, 8 inches (3.25 meters); second in the javelin, 149 feet, 9 inches (45.70 meters), and first in the 1500 meters with a world-record decathlon time of 4 minutes 40 seconds.
Thorpe's total of 8412 points also set a world record. Decathlon points are compiled based on a table that awards points for the athletes' times and distances—the better the performance, the more points awarded. The tables used to award points changed in subsequent years, but based on modern tables, Thorpe's performance would have earned him a medal in four of the next six Olympics, even though equipment later improved vastly and athletes increasingly specialized in the decathlon.
Thorpe's decathlon gold medal was widely hailed in the United States. James E. Sullivan, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said it was particularly impressive in light of criticisms that the American team consisted of too many “specialists” in track and field. “His all-around work was certainly sensational,” Sullivan told the New York Times. ”In fact, the pentathlon was added to the games especially for the benefit of foreigners, but we have shown that we can produce all-around men, too. It also answers the allegation that most of our runners are of foreign parentage, for Thorpe is a real American, if there ever was one.”
Thorpe came home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City. “I heard people yelling my name—and I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends,” he said, according to The Complete Book of the Olympics, by David Wallechinsky. However, a year later newspaper reports revealed that in 1909 Thorpe had earned $60 a month playing baseball, calling into question his status as an amateur athlete. In a letter to the Amateur Athletic Association (AAU) Thorpe admitted that he had received payment while playing baseball. “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know about such things…”
Thorpe received no leniency. Against popular opinion, the AAU ruled that Thorpe shouldn't have been allowed to compete as an amateur in the Olympics. It ordered him to return his medals and worked with the U.S. and International Olympic Committees in having the medals forwarded to the second-place finishers in the pentathlon and decathlon. Both athletes refused the medals. In 1943 supporters began trying to have his medals and records reinstated, but it wasn't until the early 1980s that the Olympic committees reversed the ban on Thorpe. In 1983 his gold medals were presented to his children.