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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
And so were Thorpe’s best years as an athlete. His skills were fading with age. Still, he played for several other NFL teams until 1929, when he was forty-one. The story of his life after that is a bleak one. Fed up with his drinking bouts, Iva had divorced him in 1923. His football career over, he had to find a regular job just as the Depression began. He moved to Los Angeles, where he occasionally got small parts in movies, then drifted into construction labor. On one site he was spotted by a reporter and had to endure being the subject of a newspaper feature on the theme “How the mighty have fallen.”
Thorpe wanted to attend the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles but couldn’t afford a ticket. Vice President of the United States Charles Curtis, himself part Indian, invited him to sit in his private box at the Olympic stadium. When Thorpe appeared, the crowd of 105,000 gave him a standing ovation. In 1950 the Associated Press voted Thorpe “Athlete of the Half-Century.”
Those were rare bright spots. In the final third of his life, Thorpe drank heavily and was almost always strapped for cash. His second marriage, which lasted from 1925 to 1941, produced four ^ sons, but once again his wife grew unable to live with his moods and his absences. By the late 1930s he was earning a modest living giving lectures and making personal appearances. He got involved in some Indian political causes, but his principal avocation was his ongoing campaign to recover his Olympic medals. When his old Stockholm teammate Avery Brundage assumed the presidency of the IOC in 1952, some thought he would prove sympathetic. But Brundage was another gentleman of the old school, in both the good and the bad senses of the phrase.
Bob Condron, of the United States Olympic Committee, says: “Brundage was the foremost stickler for amateurism in the history of the Olympics. In later years the athletes called him Slavery Brundage.” So strongly was Brundage identified with the old antiprofessional snobbery that many people now believe it was he who stripped Thorpe of his Olympic medals in the first place, although he didn’t have a thing to do with it. He did, however, ignore the near-unanimous public opinion in Thorpe’s favor for decades, saying only, “Ignorance is no excuse.” Thorpe, for his part, may have nursed a great grudge against Brundage, but he was circumspect in public. He said, “I think Brundage is sincere in his beliefs.”
In 1982 the International Olympic Committee restored his medals—twenty-nine years after he died.
Jim Thorpe died of a heart attack in his trailer home in Lomita, California, in 1953. A movement soon got under way to erect a monument to him somewhere in Oklahoma, his native state, but political red tape prevented it. His body lay for months in a vault in Tulsa, waiting for a final resting place.
Late that year Thorpe’s widow (his third wife) saw a television documentary about a fund-raising project going on in the twin towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, which had fallen on hard times with the collapse of the local coal-mining industry. The editor of the Mauch Chunk Times-News , Joseph L. Boyle, was attempting to finance an industrial building to revitalize the area. “The day after the documentary was aired,” Boyle recalls, “Mrs. Thorpe contacted me and proposed that she’d move Jim’s body here if we’d erect a mausoleum and change our name to Jim Thorpe.”
At first the idea struck Boyle as preposterous—until he remembered that the two towns had been trying for years to consolidate their schools and government but had never been able to get past East Mauch Chunk’s refusal to take Mauch Chunk’s name. Boyle had the thought that a consolidation under the name Jim Thorpe could preserve local pride in both towns. “Mrs. Thorpe discussed the matter with town officials, and it was approved,” Boyle says. “We appropriated seventy-five acres of land for the memorial, most of which was used for a technical school. Thorpe’s body is near the school, under a marker that bears the words of King Gustav: ‘Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!’ The name change has brought us things we’d never have imagined. We’re a reactivated tourist center; consolidation of our schools has led to great improvements in the curriculum; our local business has boomed. The name of Jim Thorpe is magical!”
Thorpe’s family and friends fought on after his death to have his Olympic honors restored. Brundage finally stepped down from the presidency of the IOC in 1972, and a major break-through came in the next year, when the U.S. Olympic Committee voted to restore Thorpe’s amateur status. “Rules on eligibility were changing drastically in the 1970s,” Condron explains. “The fact that some of the things Thorpe had done were not now violations probably had a lot to do with the reinstatement. Today you can play professionally in one sport and not be disqualified from competing as an amateur in another.”
Lord Killanin, who succeeded Brundage as president of the International Olympic Committee, was only slightly less inflexible than Brundage; his successor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, was far more sympathetic. “Samaranch just wants competition by the best athletes available in every sport,” Condron says. “He was adamantly in favor of opening up the Olympics to professionals.”