Born to European-Amerindian parents in 1887 and raised in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma with his original given name of Wa-Tho-Huk (“Bright Path”), Jim Thorpe was a born athlete. At 16, he went to study at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where his talent was quickly spotted. He excelled at American football, athletics (for example, he cleared 1.85m in the high jump aged 19 and was a highly talented thrower), baseball, lacrosse, wrestling, rowing and tennis.
In 1909, he responded favourably to the requests by the baseball manager at the Rocky Mount club (Fayetteville, North Carolina), who was looking for students to boost his team, in exchange for a modest wage. Although the more savvy players used an alias in order not to risk their amateur status, Thorpe spent two seasons at Rocky Mount without worrying about this issue. He then returned to Carlisle and became an American football star, establishing his reputation as an outstanding player who knocked down everyone in his way, when his athletics-loving coach suggested he consider competing at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. At the US trials in New York, he qualified for the high jump and long jump, and won a place in the pentathlon alongside the future President of the IOC, Avery Brundage, and the decathlon.
“Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world”
On 7 July 1912, in front of the spectators in the Ostermalm Olympic Stadium in the Swedish capital, Thorpe entered the Games’ history books. He amazed the public and his rivals with his achievements in the pentathlon: 1st in the long jump (7.07m), 1st in the 200m (22.9), 1st in the discus (35.57m), and 1st in the 1,500m (4:44.8) – dominating four events out of the five, as his 46.71m throw in the javelin earned him a third place. He won with a huge lead over Norway’s Ferdinand Bie, followed by his fellow countryman James Donahue and Canada’s Frank Lukeman. Avery Brundage came 6th. The next day, 8 July, he came 4th in the high jump (1.87m), and four days later, he finished 7th in the long jump (6.89m).
However, his best was yet to come – in the form of the decathlon (100m, long jump, shotput, high jump, 400m, discus, 110m hurdles, pole vault, javelin and 1,500m), staged from 13 to 15 July. Coming first in the shotput (12.89m), the high jump (1.87m), the 110m hurdles (15.6) and the 1,500m (4:40.1), he did not dominate in the other events, but still remained amongst the best. Indeed, never has a decathlete won with such a lead. His score (8,212.955) was nearly 700 points higher than that of the runner-up, Sweden’s Hugo Wieslander, and he set a world record that stood until 1927. In addition, in the tribute paid to him in 1982 during the second Olympic Week in Lausanne, Rober Pariente, then-Editor in Chief of daily newspaper l’Équipe wrote: “In 1932, in Los Angeles, with his total score of 1912, Thorpe was still ranked 2nd, and in 1948 at the London Games, 36 years later, Jim beat winner Bob Mathias in four out of 10 events!”
“Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world,” said Swedish King Gustav V, patron of the Games of the V Olympiad, to Thorpe as he presented him with his two gold medals and placed a crown of laurel leaves on his head in the official stands in the stadium in mid-July 1912. There followed a triumphant return to the US and a stirring congratulatory message from President William Taft: “(...) Your victory will serve as an incentive to all to improve those qualities which characterise the best type of American citizens.”
Stripped of his titles then reinstated
Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, his low-paid participation in baseball games in 1909-10 was revealed following an investigation conducted by a journalist from the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. It was deemed that Thorpe had violated the rules of amateurism that were then in force, and in early 1913, his gold medals were taken away. Even Pierre de Coubertin himself was offended by this.
Jim Thorpe then embarked on a high-level multifaceted sports career up to the end of the 1920s. He made a career in basketball and became one of the major stars of professional American football, racking up titles with the Canton Bulldogs (Ohio), world champions in 1916, 1917 and 1919. With his team, he was part of the birth of the National Football League (NFL), of which he was its first President in 1920. He continued his sports career up to the age of 41, and then became a film actor, starring in around 50 films until the 1950s.
He died of heart failure aged 64 on 28 March 1953. He was named Best US Athlete of the first part of the 20th century by the Associated Press, and best footballer of the same period. A poll by ABC Sports in 2000 saw him come top of his country’s athletes for the whole century. In Pennsylvania, the town of Mauch Chunk was renamed in his honour after his death in the 1950s. In Jim Thorpe, PA, nicknamed the “Switzerland of America”, his marble tomb was erected, adorned with the famous phrase uttered by the King of Sweden, on a plot of earth from his hometown of Oklahoma and from the Stockholm Olympic Stadium.
Finally, 30 years after this death, the International Olympic Committee officially reinstated his titles from the 1912 Games at a moving ceremony attended by two of his sons on 18 January 1983. Jim Thorpe was the first major decathlon star, and his successors were the likes of Rafer Johnson, Daley Thompson, Dan O’Brien, Roman Sebrle and Ashton Eaton – all Olympic champions and world record-holders – and distant descendant, Kevin Mayer of France, the current world record-holder with 9,126 points.