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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
Carlisle was the best known of the many Indian schools set up around the country in the last part of the nineteenth century to teach reservation children how to live like whites. Though only a high school, it admitted students as old as twenty-three, and its teams competed against the country’s top colleges. When Jim Thorpe set off for Carlisle, his father reportedly told him, “Son, I want you to show other races what an Indian can do.” Thorpe, like most Carlisle students, studied there briefly and then left to live with and work for a local white family for two years. When he had completed that stint of learning white ways in 1907, he was readmitted.
Some historians have portrayed Pop Warner as Thorpe’s mentor during his time at Carlisle, but that’s an exaggeration. If Jim Thorpe had a guiding light at all, it was his father. Hiram Thorpe died shortly after Jim left for Carlisle, and from then on Jim seemed to provide his own inspiration.
Warner later recalled, “I never had to do much coaching with Jim. Like all Indians, his powers of observation were remarkably keen. I guess Carlisle … provided me with the easiest coaching job I ever had.” If Warner had had his way, Thorpe would never have played football. Warner wanted him to devote his energies to track and field and feared he might injure himself on the gridiron. But Thorpe insisted.
He was not modest about his abilities. On his return to Carlisle, when he was nineteen, he made the track team by high-jumping 5′9″ in his street clothes. Warner informed him he had just broken the school record; Thorpe was unimpressed: “That’s not very high. I could do a lot better in a track suit.” And he did.
In 1908 Thorpe won the high jump at the prestigious Penn Relays. That fall he was named a third-team All-American running back. Then he took two years off from Carlisle. He had the chance to earn a little pocket money playing minor-league baseball in North Carolina, and he wanted to spend some time in Oklahoma hunting and fishing. Although he had no way of knowing it at the time, this innocent sojourn would be the biggest mistake of his life.
Pop Warner persuaded Thorpe to return to Carlisle for the 1911 football season with a promise to get him on the 1912 Olympic track team. Carlisle went 11-1 that year, routing such powerhouses as Penn, Brown, Pittsburgh, and Lafayette. Against Harvard, Thorpe gained 173 yards, more than half of Carlisle’s total offense, and scored all of Carlisle’s eighteen points—a touchdown and four field goals.
By now Thorpe had started to gain a national reputation. He was named a first-team Ail-American, and some experts started calling him one of the greatest halfbacks ever. The Pittsburgh Dispatch reported after one game: “This person Thorpe was a host in himself. Tall and sinewy, as quick as a flash and as powerful as a turbine engine, he appeared to be impervious to injury.”
In track the next spring he competed in five to seven events at every meet. In one he won the high jump, the shot put, and the 220-yard low hurdles, took second in the high hurdles and the long jump, and third in the 100yard dash. He was a hands-down qualifier at the Olympic trials for the decathlon, pentathlon, high jump, and long jump.
The American Olympic team trained as it sailed for Stockholm on the Red Star liner SS Finland . The swimmers worked out in a huge canvas tank, and the runners practiced on a deck covered with cork to muffle the sound of their footsteps. The great sportswriter Grantland Rice, among others, promoted the story that Thorpe didn’t train on board the Finland . And Johnny Hayes, who had won the gold medal for the United States in the marathon at the 1908 Olympics, claimed that Thorpe practiced for the long jump merely by drawing a chalk mark on the deck and staring at it from his hammock, before drifting off to sleep. But Thorpe’s teammates, including his future nemesis Avery Brundage, unanimously asserted that he trained as hard on the journey as any of them.
The 1912 Olympics represented a major step into modern times for organized sports. Electric timing equipment was used for the first time; so was a public-address system. The first of the four events Thorpe competed in, the pentathlon, took place on the second day, Sunday, July 7, 1912. He was expected to do well and finish perhaps as high as third. The smart money for the gold medal was on Ferdinand Bie of Norway, followed by Hugo Wieslander of Sweden.
Thorpe immediately upset the conventional wisdom by winning the pentathlon’s long jump, with a jump of 23′2.7″. In the next event he was at a disadvantage: it was the javelin, and he only recently had thrown one for the first time in his life. Still, his throw of 153′2.95″was good enough to take third place. In the 200-meter dash Thorpe took another first, running the race in 22.9 seconds; the favorite, Bie, finished a poor sixth. Then he hurled the discus 116′8.4″; Brundage took second, with a throw that landed more than two feet behind Thorpe’s.
The final event, the 1,500-meter run, was expected by many to be Thorpe’s downfall. He was well in the lead for the gold medal, but if he faltered and Bie won, the Norwegian would still have a chance. Bie started fast, and he and Thorpe were neck and neck at the three-quarter pole. But Bie finally faded and staggered in sixth; Thorpe kicked and won in a time of 4:44.8.