Happy Birthday, Jim Thorpe

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I found myself wondering this morning if Jim Thorpe’s spirits found solace in the mass arrests of the suits at FIFA, soccer’s famously imperious international governing body.

Why the schadenfreude? That’s easy: It was the International Olympic Committee, FIFA’s haughty cousin, that stripped Thorpe of his medals after the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm.

That travesty was ultimately reversed by the IOC, but only grudgingly, and decades after Thorpe’s death in 1953. But the machinations of petty bureaucrats don’t usually end up with history’s last word. What we remember about the 1912 Olympics today are Thorpe’s incredible feats in track and field, along with the pronouncement of Swedish King Gustav V as he placed gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon around the neck of an American Indian.

“Sir,” the king told Thorpe, “you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

The most versatile and sublime athlete America ever produced was the pride of Oklahoma -- and the Sac and Fox Nation. In fact, he was born in a one-room cabin in Indian Territory a generation before Oklahoma would achieve statehood. The exact date and location are uncertain. His birth certificate lists May 22, 1888 as the date and the town of Prague as the place, but Thorpe himself cited today’s date, May 28, as his birthday and he said he was born at his mother’s home along the banks of the North Fork River about 10 miles from Prague.

Both his parents were of mixed heritage, so Thorpe was baptized a Catholic and given a “white” name, James Francis Thorpe, as well as an Indian one, Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path.”

The path wasn’t bright right away. Jim’s father, Hiram, taught him to ride, shoot, trap, and wrangle horses, activities the boy much preferred to sitting in a classroom. He ran away from school, and home, several times.

“He moved like a breeze,” famed sportswriter Grantland Rice once observed, and this was true in Thorpe’s life as well as his athletic career.

His mother passed away while he was a boy. His father died a few years later, but not before sending Jim to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. One day in 1907, Thorpe was strolling to class when he saw members of the track team practicing the high jump. He was 5-foot-8 inches tall, and the bar was set at 5-9. Thorpe asked if he could try, and was told to go ahead. He soared over the bar in street clothes.

Then, as now, this was the kind of derring-do that kids talk about, and when Carlisle’s football and track coach, Pop Warner, heard about it, he sent for Thorpe.

“Have I done anything wrong?” the young man asked.

“Son, you’ve only broken the school record in the high jump,” replied Warner. “That’s all.”

In between starring in track, football, basketball, and lacrosse at Carlisle, Jim took time to play semi-professional baseball in North Carolina in 1909. This little lark would come back to haunt him.

He returned to school in 1911, earning all-America honors on the gridiron and building Carlisle into a national, if brief, football power. In 1912, Thorpe led Carlisle to a lopsided win over a strong Army team, a victory celebrated by Indians all over this country. Thorpe’s performance in that game played in the mud at West Point was the stuff of legend.

All the players on both sides were old enough to remember The Battle of Leech Lake in Minnesota, the last pitched battle in this country between U.S. Army regulars and Native Americans. The young men from Carlisle had heard family stories about encounters with the saber-toting U.S. Army “long knives,” whom the cadets represented. The federal government, aware that the massacre at Wounded Knee had occurred only 22 years earlier, generally precluded athletic contests between Carlisle and the academy.

Pop Warner often puzzled over the best way to motivate his team. Not this time. “I shouldn’t have to prepare you for this game,” he told his players at practice the week before. “Just go to your rooms and read your history books.”

In the summer, Jim Thorpe had sailed to Europe with a U.S. Olympic team that included George Patton. On this day, he was facing another future U.S. Army legend, an all-America player named Dwight Eisenhower.

Early in the game Eisenhower tackled Thorpe, forcing a fumble. Late in the game, Ike tried it again, and suffered a knee injury for his trouble. In between those two plays, Thorpe and Carlisle ran all over Army. In a Hollywood-type sequence, Thorpe ran for a 92-yard touchdown that was called back for a penalty—and then promptly scored a 97-yard TD on the next play.

Half a century later, President Eisenhower would still extol Thorpe’s greatness as an athlete. Indeed, Thorpe would go on help launch professional football in this country -- he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- and play major league baseball. But it was in Stockholm that he cemented his legend, demolishing the competition and posting times in track events that wouldn’t be equaled or surpassed until after World War II.

A complaint lodged with the IOC resulted in those records being officially expunged, and the medals taken away. The few dollars Thorpe received playing minor league baseball in North Carolina had rendered him a professional and not an Olympic “amateur.”

The punishment was excessive, and the ruling somewhat capricious. For most of the 20th century, the decathlon gold medal winner was as famous as the heavyweight champion of the world. The decathlon meant one’s image on a Wheaties box and on countless magazine covers. But not for Jim Thorpe.

As the civil rights movement took hold, more and more people began to see elitism and racism in the Olympic committee’s treatment of Thorpe. “Amateur” itself became an anachronism, and in 1982, the IOC finally rescinded its earlier ruling.

In 1950, the Associated Press ratified King Gustav’s 1912 pronouncement by naming Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century. In 2012, sports journalist Sally Jenkins looked back on Thorpe’s Stockholm performance 100 years earlier by noting that sportswriters and fans like to compare athletes from different eras and speculate who, would win the decathlon, for instance, if all the great Olympic champions could compete head to head.

“The numbers Thorpe posted in Stockholm give us a concrete answer,” Jenkins wrote. “He would.”

 

 

 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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