The Greatest Athlete In The World
That’s what everyone agreed. Jim Thorpe was at the 1912 Olympics, but legend had to make him even more—and draconian rules had to take it all away
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
Jim Thorpe throws the discus at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, where he was awarded the gold medal in the decathlon.
Americans have always demanded that their heroes be more than human. George Washington had to have thrown the dollar across the Potomac, Davy Crockett had to have wrestled a grizzly, Babe Ruth had to have come through for a dying boy with a promised home run. We all know that these stories are Sunday truths, but somehow the men wouldn’t be the same without them.
Likewise many of the stories about America’s greatest Olympic hero. Damon Runyon once remarked, “More lies have been told about Jim Thorpe than about any other athlete.” That may be true. Here are a few:
In the 1912 Olympics he won a gold medal in each event in which he competed—five, or eight, or ten events. He set records in each of those events, most of which stood for many years. He did this without having trained at all. In his twenty years of college and pro football, he never missed a tackle. He could run the length of a football field in ten seconds flat—in full pads. His average punting distance was eighty yards, and he could occasionally boot a hundred. On one long , touchdown run he tucked a would-be tackier under his free arm and carried him the last twenty yards.
What actually is true is that without much question Thorpe was the best all-around athlete in modern history. He is best known for winning the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 Olympics and for his exploits on the football field. He was one of only a half dozen men who ever played both major-league baseball and NFL football; indeed, he was the first president of the ^ National Football League. He also excelled at billiards, bowling, golf, swimming, gymnastics, rowing, hockey, figure skating, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and dancing.
And he is the man whose Olympic medals were revoked on dubious grounds—possibly as a result of class prejudice. Because of that, his story became irresistible: that of the honest man struggling all his life for vindication, and finding it only posthumously. Today, eighty years after his triumph at Stockholm, the legend is complete. Jim Thorpe’s Olympic medals and records have been restored; Jim Thorpe’s name adorns the trophy that goes annually to the National Football League’s most valuable player; and Jim Thorpe is buried in a town named Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
Thorpe was born—with a twin brother, Charlie—on May 28, 1888, near Prague, Oklahoma Territory (formerly Indian Territory), of an Indian and Irish father and an Indian and French mother. He was five-eighths Indian, descended from the Sac and Fox, Kickapoo, and Pottawatomi tribes, and was given the Indian name WaTho-Huck, meaning Bright Path. His father, Hiram Thorpe—a large, strong athlete who excelled at running, swimming, and wrestling—married several times and sometimes lived with two wives at once.
Pop Warner persuaded him to return to school, promising to get him into the Olympics. He was a hands-down qualifier.
Thorpe’s parents were subsistence farmers who led a life that one biographer described as “English-speaking, but Indiantoned.” They and their neighbors farmed in Indian style and observed many traditional Indian customs, but they wore whites’ clothes and hunted with guns. Hiram Thorpe was an expert hunter. He also supplemented the family income by selling bootleg whiskey.
Jim Thorpe was close to both parents and inseparable from his twin brother. Charlie died of a fever at the age of eight, and after that Jim began to go through periods of craving solitude. Hiram had taught him to hunt, and Jim often went off alone with his gun and didn’t return home for days.
However, for the most part his boyhood seems to have been one long effort to stay in the race. Hiram was his frequent hunting partner, and the older man set a breakneck pace, sometimes covering thirty miles in a day. Jim’s favorite game with other Indian boys was follow-the-leader. He later wrote: “Our sports were not ordered or directed. They were just the spontaneous expressions of boys. They lay the physical foundation for future big performances.”
Thorpe got his first schooling at the Sac and Fox Agency School near home. He was a good student when he chose to be, but that was seldom. He gained a reputation as a class clown—which he lived up to the rest of his school days—and often ran away for short periods, mainly to go hunting.
He was attending Garden Grove, another Indian school that was near Prague, when he began to attract notice as a track and field standout. Glenn Scobey (“Pop”) Warner, who would become one of the greatest coaches in football history, was visiting Indian schools around the country to recruit athletes for the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was athletic director. He was eager to sign up Jim Thorpe.