James Francis Thorpe (1888-1953) translated in Sac and Fox as “Bright Path.” was a dedicated and a highly trained athlete. Looking like a physical specimen resulted from a dedication to hard work and training. His body rippled at 185 lbs., a 42″ chest, a 32″ waist, and 24″ thighs at 6″ tall. “Nobody was in his class,” marveled historian Bill Mallon; orthopedic surgeon, professional golfer, and a leading historian on the Olympic Games.
His physique was partly the product of hard labor in the wilderness of the Oklahoma Territory as a youngster and member of the Sac and Fox Nation. By age 6, Thorpe could shoot, ride, trap, and hike 30 miles with his father stalking game. Jim was an expert wrangler of wild horses, a student of their motion, and a thoroughbred of a runner. He emulated their effective action and movement, as a result, learned how “to run like a breeze,” wrote sportswriter, Grantland Rice. https://www.jimthorpefilm.com/photo/pages/37.ht
The Redman in a White Man’s World
Throughout his teenage years, Jim decided to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here he met Glenn “Pop” Warner, the legendary football and track and field coach who discovered Jim Thorpe. Carlisle served as a model for two dozen other off-reservation boarding schools purposely built to break down the typical patterns of community and eradicate Native American culture.. Despite difficulties with cultural differences, Jim set his sights on Olympiad X in Stockholm, Sweden in 1912.
What characteristics fueled the fire under Thorpe’s motivation and ambition? His days at Carlisle are described by a teacher:
“Jim maintained an open face, an honest wide look, eyes wide apart, a picture of frankness, but not brilliance. He would trust anybody. His appearance on the gridiron was described as the epitome of concentration, wary, with an effect of plenty of reserves.” voiced Carlisle’s piano teacher, Verna Whistler.
Unforgettable Olympiad X
In Spring of 1912, Thorpe started training for the Olympiad X in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe was chosen to represent the U.S. in the pentathlon and decathlon events. The pentathlon and decathlon teams included future International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage. At the time, Jim did not know that Brundage would become an antagonistic character in a tragic story fueling Jim’s rise and fall from grace.
. Yet, a triumphant Jim Thorpe won 2 gold medals by winning eight of the 15 individual events comprising the pentathlon and decathlon. For the record, winning both medals at the Olympic Games has never been repeated. Notably, Thorpe achieved an unequivocal honor that stood the test of time.
To add to his amazing accomplishment, he had to overcome the theft of his track shoes. He found a mismatched pair of replacements, including one from the trash bin, and won gold medals wearing them. Stealing Jim’s track shoes might have stemmed from dislike from his competitors like Avery Brundage. Regardless of this, Jim prevailed against the odds.
Thorpe vs. Brundage
The foreshadowing of the earlier events led up to an unfamiliar political competition between the honesty of a farm boy from Oklahoma and a bunch of sophisticated stuffed shirts from the big city. The contest was rigged against him. Jim was unprepared for the unscrupulous skullduggery to come. Here’s the story.
In 1912, all athletes followed rules regarding amateurism to participate in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions were ineligible. Thorpe played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina.in the summer of 1909 and 1910. College players commonly spent summers playing professional baseball and used an alias. Thorpe explained in a letter:
“I hope by the fact that as a simple Indian schoolboy who did not know all about such things. I did not know I was doing anything wrong. I was doing what I knew several other college players had done, except that they did not use their names.”
The American Athletic Union ignored the fact that it was commonplace that many college players played anonymously in professional baseball under assumed names. By contrast, the committee decided to discriminate and single out Thorpe by stripping him of his medals.awards, and titles. Consequently, Jim Thorpe was devastated. Despite all of this tragedy, he found the inner strength to push himself to excel in multiple sports and overcome the injustice from his past.
As a result, Jim played six seasons of Major League Baseball, yet football remained his favorite. The Canton Bulldogs, a powerhouse football franchise, dominated professional football in its earliest days. Jim Thorpe was at the core of the team’s championship success.
In 1920, Thorpe served as star and coach, the Bulldogs claimed unofficial world championships in 1916, 1917, 1919, and 1920. As a player, Thorpe could run with speed, bruising power, throw a forward pass, and catch passes with the best. To the wonder of onlookers, Thorpe punted the ball long distances, and he dropkicked or placed kicked the football distances up to 50 yards.
An Athlete for All Seasons
Heretofore, players like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, Jim Thorpe was America’s original crossover athlete. He was a two-time college football All-American (1911-1912) at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School under Pop Warner. As a professional, he excelled on the gridiron in the N.F.L (1920-25, 1926, 1928). He played halfback and linebacker, playing both ways. Rounding out his professional career; he played Major League Baseball for six seasons, as an outfielder (1913-1919), and traveled the country with a professional basketball team (1927). Would history restore the legacy of Jim Thorpe?
Racism and Prejudice Dispelled
Careful discovery and research for this project found a revealing caveat of fact: The stripping of Thorpe’s medals demonstrated hypocrisy and discrimination based on race. The committee violated its own standing policy and procedures by filing a late grievance. According to the I.O.C. rules, protests filed after 30 days were void. They filed the objection 6 months beyond the stipulated time frame stated in their bylaws.
Over the years, supporters of Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic medals returned. Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, and others rejected many attempts, using the phrase, “ignorance is no excuse.” Brundage who died at 87 in 1975,” had the reputation of being a humorless, pompous, and an egotistical prig. Furthermore, “this man behaved like a fascist and anti-semite; he acted as a hypocrite with selective ethics”, wrote Clifford Terry of the Chicago Tribune.
Jim’s Final Victory
Finally, in 1982, the previous policies and practices were exposed to show their discriminatory nature by newly elected members. As a result, the International Olympic Committee restored the medals and awards to the Thorpe family. Consequently, the honor and spirit of Bright Path rose from obscurity to revel in the heavens. Gradually, the honors continued to build for Jim Thorpe. In summary, Jim Thorpe tried to change racial attitudes around race by running in one-1912 Olympiad X. Unfortunately, such attitudinal changes remain decades in the making.
The Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century
At the closing ceremonies of the 1912 Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden, King Gustav V addressed medalist Thorpe. He said, “Sir you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe replied, “Thanks, King.” His other career highlights and awards include:
First -team All-Pro N.F.L. (1923), N.F.L. 1920’s All-Decade Team, College All-American (1911-1912), Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee (1963), College Football Hall of Fame election (1951).
In closing, in 1999 in a joint resolution, the U.S. Congress recognized the World’s Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century. It was not Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig, Jessie Owens, or Muhammad Ali. Congress recognized a man whose legend was as “silent as the wind”. The name of the “World’s Greatest Athlete of the Century whispered in the ears of the Native American Indians from Oklahoma– “Jim Thorpe–the Legend.”