The Athlete Of The Century

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This wonderfully proud man’s name became inextricably linked with the incubus of his supposed misdeed.

When the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) discovered this “transgression” of their sacred rules, Thorpe lost his medals, and the distant second-place finishers received both the titles and the objects. (To complete the humiliation, Thorpe not only lost his records but was also browbeaten into returning the medals themselves, even after humbling himself and begging forgiveness for his supposed sins, and despite support from most major sportsmen and the American public.)

The resulting humiliation marked and destroyed this wonderfully proud man. Thorpe’s name became inextricably linked with the incubus of this supposed misdeed. (I purposely left this topic for the end, and I’ll wager that most readers have been wondering throughout the piece, “Well, when is he going to discuss those Olympic medals?”) Chief Meyers, Thorpe’s roommate and a great catcher for the New York Giants, recalled (note also the paternalism reflected in the almost automatic decision to pair Indian players as roommates, and in the epithet “Chief” applied to nearly all Indian ballplayers at the time): “Jim was very proud of the great things he’d done. A very proud man. . . . Very late one night Jim came in and woke me up. . . . He was crying, and tears were rolling down his cheeks. ‘You know, Chief,’ he said, ‘the King of Sweden gave me those trophies, he gave them to me. But they took them away from me. They’re mine, Chief, I won them fair and square.’ It broke his heart and he never really recovered.”

Far too late to appease Thorpe’s wounds, and despite arguments and pleas that never abated, the U.S. Olympic Committee finally restored Thorpe’s amateur status in 1973, twenty years after his death. The Olympic medals were returned to his family in 1982. (Avery Brundage, a “gentleman” of wealth and breeding, had competed against Thorpe, and lost, in both the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912. He later became the aristocratic and sanctimonious head of the International Olympic Committee and never wavered on this issue, while hypocritically proclaiming his personal sympathy with Thorpe.)

Any further moralizing could only be tendentious. As Ethel Barrymore famously said, “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.” I would only close with this footnote: According to legend, the King of Sweden, in presenting the Olympic medals to Jim Thorpe, said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” To this basic factual judgment, Thorpe replied, in his own elegantly simple way, “Thanks, King.” And what can we say but “Thanks, Jim.”