Thorpe conquers all to become first great all-round Olympian
Jim Thorpe is now widely acknowledged as one of the most talented all-round athletes of the 20th century. His successes in Stockholm were clouded in controversy for many years, but they can now be enjoyed for the superb pieces of sporting achievement that they were.
Thorpe was born in 1887 in the US state of Oklahoma; his mother was partly descended from a well-known native Indian tribe and he boasted an apt native name, “Wa-Tho-Huk”, meaning “Bright Path”. He quickly showed himself to possess rare physical gifts and by the time the Games came around in 1912 he had already made a national name for himself as an outstanding American football player.
His all-round athleticism made him a natural contender for the first ever Olympic pentathlon and decathlon competitions, and he was entered into both. Thorpe is said to have trained onboard the ship that transported the US team across the Atlantic to Sweden. The pentathlon took place on 7 July. Thorpe began with victory in the long jump and third place in the javelin, giving him an early overall lead. He then won the 200m and followed that by coming first in the discus throw and the 1,500m – taking the gold by a huge margin from the second-placed Norwegian, Ferdinand Bie.
Thorpe then turned his attentions to the decathlon, which took place over three days between 13 July and 15 July, and started with a joint third-place finish in the 100m. He finished third in the long jump too, but won the shot put to ensure that he topped the leaderboard after three events. His good form continued with a win in the high jump, and fourth place in the 400m did little to erode his lead. Third place in the discus and a comfortable victory in the 110m hurdles followed, as did a joint-third finish in the pole vault and fourth in the javelin throw. At this stage, after nine events, Thorpe was effectively home and dry – and he confirmed his supremacy in style with a superb victory in the 1,500m. He had scored a total of 8,412.955 points, way ahead of second-place Hugo Weisander of Sweden, who managed 7,724.495.
However, on 6 February 1913, the Swedish Olympic Committee was informed by the USA’s Amateur Athletic Union that it had stripped Thorpe of his amateur standing because he had received payment for competing in minor league baseball games before the 1912 Olympics. This led to his Olympic titles being removed, since the Games were strictly for amateur sportsmen, and the gold medals were awarded to Bie and Weisander respectively. That was how things remained for 70 years until, in 1983 Thorpe’s medals were restored posthumously.
Thorpe was, without doubt, one of the world’s best all-round athletes. After the Olympics, he had continued playing American football, but also excelled at basketball and baseball, turning professional in the latter sport and competing for the New York Giants. In 1950 the USA’s press voted him the best sportsman of the first half of the century, and at the turn of the millennium he was named Athlete of the Century by ABC Sports.