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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
The scoring system for the pentathlon gave one point for first place in each event, two for second, and so on, with the lowest score winning; Thorpe finished with seven points: four firsts and a third. The silver medalist, Bie, was miles behind with twenty-four. The next day Thorpe competed in the high jump and the long jump (as separate events) and came in fifth and seventh respectively.
The decathlon, a ten-part event that incorporates every aspect of track and field, has always been considered the ultimate test of endurance and allround ablility; here the versatile Hugo Wieslander was Thorpe’s main competition. A heavy downpour greeted the athletes on the first day of the decathlon, July 13—a blow to Thorpe’s chances since he was known to be at his worst in foul weather. Sure enough, his American teammate E. L. R. Mercer nosed him out of first place in the 100-meter dash. Thorpe foot-faulted twice in the long jump because the jumping board was slippery, and his final jump of 22′2.3″ fell several inches short of first place. In the shot put, however, his throw of 42′5.45″ beat Wieslander by just over two inches. In decathlon scoring, times and distances, rather than the order of finish, are what count. Mercer, Wieslander, and the others couldn’t amass consistently high scores, and Thorpe ended the day well ahead in total points.
On the following day Thorpe came in first in the high jump, leaping 6′.6″. He finished second in the 400-meter, but in the 110-meter hurdles he was first again—this time with a recordsetting 15.6 seconds. By day’s end his lead in total points appeared to be insurmountable.
The third day was a walkover. Thorpe came in second in the discus, third in the pole vault, and third in the javelin. In the final event, the 1,500meter run, he finished first in an amazing 4:40.1—nearly five seconds better than his pentathlon time. His final point total was 8,412.955, a record that stood for twenty years.
Thorpe’s prize for each event was a gold medal and a laurel wreath, supplemented by a life-size bust of Sweden’s King Gustav V, presented by the king, and a silver chalice lined with gold and stones in the shape of a Viking ship, donated by Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Several pretty good stories came out of the presentation ceremonies. The most famous—and the only one generally accepted as true—is that when King Gustav presented Thorpe with his medals, he exclaimed, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!” and Thorpe, grinning shyly, replied, “Thanks, King.”
Other reports—gleefully malicious—had it that Thorpe snubbed the king, through sheer arrogance. Thorpe wrote in his private memoirs: “Someone started a story that when King Gustav sent for me, I replied that I couldn’t be bothered to meet a mere King. That story grew until it was related that the real reason I would not meet him was that I was too busy doing weightlifting stunts with steins of Swedish beer. The story was not true. I have pictures showing King Gustav crowning me with the laurel wreath and presenting me with the trophies and it is no fabrication that he said to me: ‘Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.’ That was the proudest moment of my life.”
No athlete had ever captured the public imagination so quickly or so completely. On his return home Thorpe received a ticker-tape parade in New York, a banquet in Philadelphia, a personal letter of praise from President Taft, and a triumphal procession back to Carlisle. That Thorpe was an Indian didn’t diminish his stature in the eyes of white fans, as being black certainly would have. In fact, his race was part of his appeal. The last Indian war was more than twenty years past, it was common knowledge that most Indians were having a miserable time on reservations, and there was some feeling of national guilt. Along with that guilt came a tendency to romanticize, to portray Indians as uniformly strong, brave, pure of heart, and indomitable “l of spirit. It was at about that time that sports teams began taking on nicknames like the Boston Braves and the Cleveland Indians. Thorpe would have been baffled by the notion that such names could seem demeaning.
That fall Thorpe was practically the whole Carlisle football team. The Indians tied one game and won the rest. In Carlisle’s climactic 27-6 walloping of Army, Thorpe averaged more than ten yards per carry. In the last game of the season, against Brown, Thorpe scored three touchdowns and kicked two field goals. Once again—as if there had been any doubt—he was named a first-team All-American.
Then, on January 23, 1913, came the blow that was to cripple his career and, finally, break his spirit. As often happens, an insignificant incident ended up rocking the world. A reporter for the Worcester, Massachusetts, Telegram , interviewing a minor-league baseball manager named Charley Clancy, happened to notice a photograph in Clancy’s office of a few of the players he had managed in the Carolina League in 1909. The next day the story broke that Jim Thorpe had been a professional athlete.
The rule that only amateurs could compete in the Olympics dated back to antiquity. In ancient Greece Olympians never competed for money until the Romans conquered Greece and introduced cash prizes. The games then turned into brutal, corrupt circuses and were finally banned in the fourth century.