Jim Thorpe was the perfect example of the American dream. Of mixed Irish/French and American Indian descent, the great athlete was proof that you could achieve whatever you wanted as long as you had the talent, dedication and determination in an era when it mattered so much where you came from.
Thorpe was born on May 28 1888 in Bellemont, Oklahoma. The local Indian name for the settlement translated to
bright path and it’s most famous son was soon on a glittering ascent to the pinnacle of sport. He shone at the local Carlisle Indian School, where his talent in any athletic event he tried was obvious to all.
Having earned a place in the US team for the fifth staging of the Modern Olympics, Thorpe stole the show in Stockholm in 1912, winning both the Pentathlon and Decathlon by huge margins and setting world records in the process. He also came fourth in the main High Jump competition.
Riches to Rags
The world was at Thorpe’s feet but then, on January 27 1913, it all went wrong. The International Olympic Committee decreed that he must be stripped of his golds having discovered that Thorpe had been paid for playing baseball in 1909 and 1910. The IOC at the time had strict rules that all competitors must be amateur. The sums involved were meagre, between $20-35 per week.
It’s laughable now when the likes of multi-millionaires Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and, in years to come, perhaps Tiger Woods take to the Olympic stage.
Not surprisingly Thorpe said to hell with athletics and threw in his lot with professional gridiron and baseball teams, with some success. He also went on to act in movies, but alcohol dependency took a hold on him and he tragically died, penniless, in 1953.
Salvation Comes Too Late
Long after his death, with the IOC gradually loosening its rules on amateurism to keep the Games relevant and to attract top sporting stars, a groundswell of public opinion urged them to reinstate Thorpe.
Eventually, in 1983, his children were presented with commemorative medals, his original gongs having been stolen from a museum, and Thorpe was returned to his rightful place in the Olympic pantheon.
Gone, but not forgotten, Thorpe was lauded as the third greatest American sportsmen of the 20th century, behind Babe Ruth and Jordan, to add to his Hall of Fame accolades from Pro and College football, the US Olympic Movement and the US Track and Field Association.