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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
When the modern Olympics began in 1896, strict rules about amateurism were imposed. “In Thorpe’s day the British aristocracy wrote the rules,” says Pete Cava, press information director for the Athletics Congress, which governs track and field nationwide. “The main theory is that their attitude was intended to prevent the working classes from competing, to keep the aristocracy from competing against undesirables.”
Bob Condron, associate director of public information and media for the United States Olympic Committee, points out that even “laborers were considered professionals. John Kelly, a rower who competed for the United States in the 1924 Olympics, was a bricklayer, and there was a movement to prevent him from participating because he had a job.”
Pop Warner and various people connected with the U.S. Olympic team had known about Thorpe’s baseball career but had simply hoped the story would never come up. And Thorpe himself had known the rules. Most of his fellows had played baseball under assumed names, to protect their amateur status; inexplicably Thorpe had taken no such precaution.
As soon as the word got out, the Amateur Athletic Union demanded an explanation. Thorpe did the best he could. In a letter to the AAU, he admitted the charges against him but added: “I was not wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong, and that it would make me a professional in track sports. … I never realized until now what a big mistake I made by keeping it a secret about my ball playing and I am sorry I did so. I hope I would be partly excused because of the fact that I was simply an Indian school boy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong because I was doing what … other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.
“I have always … only played or run races for the fun of the things … I have received offers amounting to thousands of dollars since my victories last summer, but… I did not care to make money from my athletic skill. … I hope the Amateur Athletic Union and the people will not be too hard in judging me.”
His hope came to nothing. The AAU demanded that he return his medals, and even his gifts from King Gustav and Czar Nicholas, to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). They were sent to Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander, and Thorpe’s records were expunged from the Olympic archives. Yet another anecdote claims that Bie and Wieslander sent the trophies back unopened, Wieslander commenting simply, “I did not win the decathlon.” Heartwarming, but not true. They both expressed regret at what had happened—and kept the booty.
Public opinion, on the other hand, was nearly unanimously in Thorpe’s favor, both here and in Europe. Newspaper columnists cited the countless college athletes who were subsidized by scholarships and accused the AAU and the 1OC of persecuting Thorpe because of his low social estate. The Buffalo Enquirer exclaimed that “the honest world … will always consider him the athlete par excellence of the past fifty years.” The Toronto Mail and Empire sneered, “The amateur world reels under the blow, and falls upon the rest of the world to stagger with it. The rest of the world, however, will decline to see any great difference between a man running a race and receiving $20 or $50 for his efforts, and a man running a race and receiving a gold watch.” But no amount of public outcry could sway the AAU, let alone the hidebound governors of the IOC. Campaigns were organized to have the sanctions reversed. Yet every effort met with stony resistance.
Thorpe pretended it didn’t hurt. He kept smiling and refused to criticize the IOC or the AAU. A few days after his medals had been returned, he and a female student won a ballroom-dancing contest at a school party. The next day he signed with the New York Giants baseball team for an annual salary of six thousand dollars.
His baseball career was the inspiration for several other tall tales. One of the best Thorpe told himself, about one of his first appearances with the Giants. “It was at an exhibition game in Texarkana, Texas …,” he claimed. “I hit three home runs in that game, one over the left-field fence, which was Arkansas; one over the right-field fence, which was Oklahoma; and one over the center-field fence, which was Texas.”
Two-thirds of the story is believable, but that second home run would have been especially impressive, since the Oklahoma border lies a good thirty miles from Texarkana. Why did Thorpe spin such an outrageous yarn? Probably he saw it as harmless fun. Perhaps he grew up telling tall tales as an ordinary part of Indian life. At any rate the story was one of the few bright spots of Jim’s baseball career or, indeed, of his whole life in the ensuing six or seven years. He married Iva Miller, the daughter of a Carlisle teacher, in 1913, and though the marriage was a happy one at first, they lost an infant son to polio in 1917. Thorpe, who had been drinking more heavily since the Olympian nightmare, now sank into an alcohol-sodden depression that caused irreparable damage to the marriage.