Jim Thorpe: The Greatest Athlete in History
Native Phenom Who Dazzled the World
Jim Thorpe. Most of the world has heard his name. Many know that he was one of the greatest athletes that ever lived, many say “THE greatest.” Fewer know that he was Native and born on a reservation and became the first American Indian to win Olympic Gold Medals.
Fewer still know the amazing back story of Jim Thorpe, a man who defied grinding poverty, hardship, and overwhelming odds to become a World Champion. Only 30 years after the last Indian had been exiled to reservations in America, in 1912, Jim Thorpe mesmerized the world at the Stockholm Olympics and won the two most difficult Olympic events that would define him as the world’s greatest all-around athlete: The Decathlon (10 sports) and the Pentathlon (5 sports). But the truth behind the man makes his feat even more heroic.
Jim Thorpe was born of two Native parents—Fox, Sauk and Potawatomi—in Indian Country near Prague, Oklahoma, on May 22, 1887. His father was a hunter and horse wrangler, his mother a descendant of the last great Sauk and Fox chief, Black Hawk. Jim was born “Wa-Tho-Huk,” meaning “Bright Path.” His name would prove fortuitous; about two decades later as a young man, he would blaze a trail of world-shattering athletic records in the Olympics, then later in several professional sports.
Jim was born a twin, but at age nine, his brother, Charlie, died of pneumonia. For the rest of his life, Jim believed that Charlie had given him his own strength before dying and felt Charlie's presence with him always. Jim would attend the infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where he would become an orphan, first losing his mother to childbirth when he was 14, then his father at age 17. On his father’s deathbed, Hiram Thorpe’s dying words would give Jim more strength:
“Son, you’re an Indian. I want you to show other races what an Indian can do.” Jim took his father’s words to heart.
Thorpe began his athletic career at Carlisle in 1907 when he walked past the track and beat all the school's high jumpers with an impromptu 5-ft 9-in jump still in street clothes. He had never tried the sport before! His earliest track and field results were also recorded in 1907 at Carlisle Indian School. He competed in football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, and even ballroom dancing, winning the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship.
Thorpe first came into the national spotlight in 1911, when playing football for Carlisle as a running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter. He made headlines when he beat top-ranked Harvard 18-15 in the early days of the NCAA and scored all four of his team's field goals. His team finished the season 11–1. In 1912 Carlisle won the national collegiate championship largely as a result of his efforts – he scored 27 touchdowns, 224 points and rushed 191 times for 1,869 yards, according to Steve Boda, researcher for the NCAA.
That same year, in 1912, although he hardly had time to train with all of his other athletic activities, Jim Thorpe mesmerized the world at the Olympics in Stockholm. Despite none of the advantages that many elite, Ivy League and wealthy athletes had, he won Gold Medals in the Decathlon (10 sports: 100-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles, 400-meter run, 1,500-meter run, pole vault, high jump, long jump, javelin, shot put, and discus) and the Pentathlon (5 sports: fencing, shooting, swimming, equestrian riding, and cross-country-running). He even won after being sabotaged when a competitor stole his athletic shoes. He had to quickly find shoes and wore mismatched borrowed shoes, one of which he found in a trash can! (See photo above.)
Jim Thorpe’s professional sports career was as illustrious as his Olympic career. Right after the 1912 Olympics, he signed with the New York Giants baseball team & also played for the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds & Boston Braves.
Thorpe played basketball, too, for a champion all-Native team called “The Indians.” He was a three-time All-American and often beat Ivy League prep schools and consistently beat Ivy League prep school.
In 1913, he also played pro-football first for the Indiana Pros, then the Canton Bulldogs. Thorpe played against a young Dwight Eisenhower, a left halfback for the Army Cadets who got steamrolled by Thorpe and his team, 27-6 for the season final. In 1920, Thorpe became the first NFL President (then the APFA) and was on the first All-NFL Team in 1923.
Jim Thorpe's fame spread. His unassuming and modest manner, quiet honesty and dignity made him an even more sympathetic hero. He quickly became a cultural icon, representing triumph over adversity and victory against all odds. He spent much of his later career on the speaking circuit and making guest appearances. Hundreds of books were written about him. In 1951, Hollywood white star Burt Lancaster played him in “Jim Thorpe, All-American.” Two U.S. U.S.-commemorative stamps were issues in his honor. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” produced a 2000 biopic about him and Wheaties honored his athletic career on their box cover. A number of statues in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma were erected in his honor. Most recently, Angelina Jolie, who is part Native, along with other backers, is producing a new film in his honor, called “Bright Path.” Native actor Martin Sensmeier will play Jim Thorpe.
Jim Thorpe struggled all his life against the odds, systemic racism and negative Native stereotypes. At the Carlisle Indian School, despite having none of the resources, finances or other advantages that many elite, Ivy League athletes had, he went on to train successfully and made the Olympic team of 1912. Even so, he was commonly labeled a “lazy Indian” who was naturally endowed with his athletic gifts and was not given credit for his tremendous drive, rigorous training and indomitable grit.
Later in life, Jim struggled to make a living beyond his athletic activities. He went on the public speaking circuit for a while and he also appeared in several Hollywood films, usually as an Indian chief in Westerns. He sold the rights to his story to Hollywood to make a movie about him.
Although he was, by nature, a happy, optimistic man, many biographers characterized his later years as poverty stricken, alcoholic and broken, all common stereotypes of Native Americans. But, more recent research reveals a far more complicated and less dark story. Although he certainly suffered racism and injustice, his personality was such that he rarely talked about his hardships and tried to remain upbeat.
He suffered his greatest injustice after he had won his gold medals at the 1912 Olympics. Several months after the Stockholm Olympics, newspaper stories broke that he had violated his amateur status by playing pro baseball for two summers in his teens. White college players often played professionally but used aliases to forego the rules. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped Thorpe of his Gold Medals, blatantly breaking their own bylaws of taking action against him many months beyond their legal deadline. Jim’s medals and the jeweled gold trophy the King of Sweden gave him at the Olympics were quickly returned. They were soon stolen. In 1983, decades after his death, his Medals were re-minted, but he was declared a co-winner with his runner-up. His official status was unchanged.
At least two very famous men would compete against him in his youth: future WWII General, then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, and future Olympics President Avery Brundage.
Eisenhower, who played football for Army against Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School and was thoroughly defeated 27-6, said of his opponent in a 1961 speech:
“Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe.... He could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”
Avery Brundage was not as supportive of his opponent. In 1912 Thorpe defeated Brundage, his American teammate, in both the Olympics Decathlon and Pentathlon. Later, when Brundage was Olympics President (1952-1972), he zealously prevented Thorpe from being reinstated as the rightful winner of his two Gold Medals. With Thorpe’s disqualification, Brundage gained significant athletic statue and monetary gains for his business and replaced Thorpe as the U.S. National All-Around Champion. It was not until the year after Brundage died that the Olympics Committee finally reminted Thorpe’s Medals (the originals were stolen after Thorpe had returned them to the Olympics Committee) and gave them to Thorpe’s surviving sons. But his status has never been restored as the rightful sole winner of the two most revered gold medals of the Olympics—an injustice that remains to this day.
As in life, injustice dogged Jim Thorpe even into the grave. His untimely death at the young age of 64 of a heart attack, would mark the beginning of another saga of disenfranchisement for a famous Native American involving a long legal battle over his burial. Like Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Chief Joseph’s father, Teukakas, and so many other Native Americans, Jim Thorpe’s famous Native remains would not be regarded respectfully but as a commodity to be displayed for voyeuristic or tourism purposes. His wishes were to be buried near the place of his birth. But, in a truly bizarre turn of events, a small town in Pennsylvania bargained with his third wife to change their name to “Jim Thorpe” if they could bury his body in their town for tourism purposes. They promised to build a memorial to him, which they did. Thorpe’s children fought to have him interred at his birthplace and the battle ended in the Supreme Court in 2015, which ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania burial site. There, Jim Thorpe’s body remains, in a town he had never visited in life and that had no ties to him, apart from wanting to capitalize on his name. His remains are, however, two hours away from the Carlisle Indian School (southwest of his grave near Harrisburg, PA) where Jim, in his youth, began his supreme athletic career. and where Coach “Pop” Warner nurtured his amazing natural gifts. Today, the massive building that was the Carlisle Indian School—whose official slogan was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”—is occupied by the U.S. Army War College, which honors Jim Thorpe in their “Jim Thorpe Sports Day.” The complex also houses a Carlisle Historical Society Center.
The fate of Jim’s childhood haunts and the burial of his own remains is perhaps the ultimate metaphor for his experience as an Indian in America: even in death, the Carlisle School was taken over by the U.S. Army that had spent decades destroying Native culture. And his remains were co-opted by whites for their own tourism purposes. Some things never change...
You may also enjoy these related posts:
• Sitting Bull: Immortal Native Icon
• The Tragic Mystery of Geronimo's Skull
"Jim Thorpe: The Greatest Athlete in History" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on March 6, 2021.
© 2021 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER