The ultimate athlete
Though he died in poverty, Jim Thorpe is remembered as one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century, having won two Olympic track and field golds and played baseball, American football and basketball at the highest level.
Breaking new ground in Stockholm
In presenting Jim Thorpe with his two gold medals in Stockholm in July 1912, King Gustav V of Sweden, the patron of the Games of the V Olympiad, said to him: “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” The US track and field star of Native American ancestry had thrilled the Stockholm crowds with his exploits. He began by winning the pentathlon (long jump, javelin, discus, 200m and 1,500m), coming home first in every event except for the javelin, and followed up by finishing fourth in the long jump and seventh in the high jump. He saved the best until last, however, producing an extraordinary performance in the decathlon, which comprised the 100m, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400m, discus, 110m hurdles, pole vault, javelin and the 1,500m. In beating his nearest challenger – Sweden’s Hugo Wieslander – by nearly 700 points, he set a new world record of 8,412 points, which would stand until 1948.
Titles lost and regained
A multi-talented sportsman, Thorpe played baseball for the Rocky Mount club in North Carolina in 1909 and 1910, receiving small payments for each appearance he made. When a report appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette stating as much, it was deemed that Thorpe had infringed the rules regarding amateurism, and at the start of 1913 he was stripped of his Olympic titles. On 18 January 1983, some 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee officially reinstated Thorpe’s medals from the 1912 Games at an emotional ceremony attended by two of his children.
An NFL pioneer
Born to parents who were half Native American, and brought up in the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma under the name Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path”, Thorpe played a number of sports at the highest level through to the late 1920s. Before and after his Olympic exploits, he pursued a career in track and field, played baseball and basketball, and became one of the first major stars of professional American football, making a name for himself with the Canton Bulldogs of Ohio, who proclaimed themselves “world champions” in 1916, 1917 and 1919. With the Bulldogs he would play a part in the creation of the National Football League (NFL) and became its first president in 1920. Thorpe eventually retired from top-level sport at the age of 41 and promptly went into the movies, playing minor roles as a Native American in around 50 films through to the early 1950s.
A town called Jim Thorpe
Thorpe died from heart failure on 28 March 1953. He was 64. Associated Press named him the USA’s greatest athlete and American football player of the first half of the 20th century, while an ABC Sports poll in 2000 ranked him as the best American athlete of the century. A further accolade came in the 1950s when the Pennsylvanian town of Mauch Chunk renamed itself in honour of the sports star. Nicknamed “The Switzerland of America”, the town that now bore his name became his last resting place. A funeral site was built on soil taken from his native Oklahoma and the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, and features both his marble tomb and a monument inscribed with the famous words once uttered to him by the king of Sweden.