Jim Thorpe an all-rounder
November 20, 2010, 3:45 pm
Jim Thorpe was an American athlete of mixed ancestry (mixed Caucasian and American Indian), who excelled at Olympics in athletics, played professional baseball, basketball and American football. Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon. Christened as Jacobus Franciscus in the Catholic Church, information about Thorpe’s birth, (May 28, 1888 is the widely considered date of birth– died on March 28, 1953) full name, and ethnic background varies widely. He was born in Indian Territory, but no birth certificate has been found. Thorpe was generally considered born on May 28, 1888, near the town of Prague, Oklahoma.
Thorpe lost his Olympic titles after it was found he was paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the amateurism rules. Thorpe grew up in the Sac and Fox nation (Sac and Fox Nation is the largest of three federally recognized tribes of Sac and Meskwaki (Fox) Native Americans. They are located in Oklahoma) in Oklahoma. He played as part of several All-American Indian teams throughout his career, and "barnstormed" (played mainly in small towns) as a professional basketball player with a team composed entirely of American Indians.
His professional sports career ended during the Great Depression; and Thorpe struggled to earn a living after that. He worked several odd jobs, struggled with alcoholism, and lived his last years in failing health and poverty. In 1983, 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored his former Olympic medals to him.
His native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as "path lighted by great flash of lightning" or, more simply, "Bright Path". As was the custom for Sac and Fox, Thorpe was named for something occurring around the time of his birth, in this case the light brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Thorpe’s mother was Roman Catholic and raised her children in that faith, which Thorpe observed throughout his adult life.Together with his twin brother, Charlie, Thorpe attended school in Stroud, Oklahoma at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School. Charlie died of pneumonia when he was nine years old. Charlie had helped Jim through school.
In 1904, Thorpe returned to his father and decided to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There his athletic ability was recognized and he was coached by Glenn Scobey "Pop" Warner, one of the most influential coaches of early American football history. Later that year, Hiram Thorpe, his father died from gangrene poisoning after being wounded in a hunting accident. Thorpe again dropped out of school. He resumed farm work for a few years and then returned to Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where his athletic career commenced.
Thorpe reportedly began his athletic career at Carlisle in 1907 when he walked past the track and beat the school’s high jumpers with an impromptu 5-ft 9-in jump while still wearing street clothes. His earliest recorded track and field results are from 1907. In addition, he also competed in football, baseball, lacrosse and even ballroom dancing, winning the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship. Reportedly, Pop Warner was hesitant to allow Thorpe, his best track and field athlete, to compete in a physical game such as football. Thorpe, however, convinced Warner to let him participate.
Thorpe gained nationwide attention for the first time in 1911. As a running back, defensive back, place kicker, and punter for his school’s football team, Thorpe scored all of his team’s points—four field goals and a touchdown—in an 18–15 upset of Harvard. His team finished the season 11–1. The next year, Carlisle won the national collegiate championship largely as a result of his efforts - he scored 25 touchdowns and 198 points.
Carlisle’s 1912 record included a 27–6 victory over Army. In that game, Thorpe’s 92-yard touchdown was nullified by a teammate’s penalty; the next play, Thorpe scored a 97-yard touchdown. Future President Dwight Eisenhower injured his knee in that game trying to tackle Thorpe. Eisenhower recalled of Thorpe in a 1961 speech, "Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw." Thorpe was awarded All-American honors in both 1911 and 1912.
Football was—- and would remain—- Thorpe’s favorite sport. He competed only sporadically in track and field. Nevertheless, track and field became the sport in which Thorpe gained his greatest fame.
In the spring of 1912 he started training for the Olympics. He had confined his efforts to the jumps, the hurdles and the shot-put but now he undertook the pole vault, the javelin, discus, the hammer and the fifty-six-pound weight. In the Olympic trials held at Celtic Park in New York, his all-round ability stood out in all these events and so he riveted a claim to a place on the team that went to Sweden.
For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, two new multi-event disciplines were included, the pentathlon and the decathlon. A pentathlon based on the ancient Greek event had been organized at the 1906 Summer Olympics. The 1912 version consisted of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-meter dash, the discus throw and the 1500-meter run.
The decathlon was a relatively new event of modern athletics, although it had been part of American track meets since the 1880s and a version had been featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. The events of the new decathlon differed slightly from the American version. Both events seemed appropriate for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he alone had constituted Carlisle’s team in several track meets. He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in. and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in., throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus 136 feet.
Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon. He won the awards easily, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage. There were only a few candidates for the decathlon team, and the trials were cancelled.
His schedule in the Olympics was busy. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he competed in the long-jump and high-jump. The first competition was the pentathlon; Thorpe won four of the five events and placed third in the javelin, an event in which he had not competed before 1912. Although the pentathlon was primarily decided on place points, points were also earned for the marks achieved in the individual events. He won the gold medal. The same day, Thorpe qualified for the high-jump final. He placed fourth and also took seventh place in the long jump.
Thorpe’s final event was the decathlon, his first—and as it turned out, only—Olympic decathlon. Strong competition from local favorite Hugo Wieslander was expected. Thorpe, however, easily defeated Wieslander by more than 700 points. He placed in the top four of all ten events.
Thorpe’s Olympic record of 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades. Overall, Thorpe won eight of the 15 individual events of the pentathlon and decathlon.
As was the custom of the day, the medals were presented to the athletes during the closing ceremonies of the games. Along with the two gold medals, Thorpe also received two
challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon. Several sources recount that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world," to which Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King."
Thorpe’s successes had not gone unnoticed at home, and he was honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. He remembered later, "I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends."
Apart from his track and field appearance, Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball games at the 1912 Olympics, which featured two teams composed of U.S. track and field athletes. It was not Thorpe’s first try at baseball, as the public would soon learn.
After his victories at the Olympic Games in Sweden, on September 2, 1912, Thorpe returned to Celtic Park, the home of the Irish American Athletic Club, in Queens, New York (where he had qualified four months earlier for the Olympic Games), to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union’s All-Around Championship. Competing against Bruno Brodd of the Irish American Athletic Club, and J. Bredemus of Princeton University, he won seven of the ten events contested, and came in second in the remaining three. With a total point score of 7,476 points, Thorpe broke the previous record of 7,385 points set in 1909, (also set at Celtic Park), by Martin Sheridan, the champion athlete of the Irish American Athletic Club. Sheridan, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, was present to watch his record broken, and approached Thorpe after the event. He shook his hand saying, "Jim my boy, you’re a great man. I never expect to look upon a finer athlete." Sheridan told a reporter from The New York World, "Thorpe is the greatest athlete that ever lived. He has me beaten fifty ways. Even when I was in my prime, I could not do what he did today."
In 1913, strict rules regarding amateurism were in effect for athletes participating in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions, who were sports teachers, or who had competed previously against professionals, were not considered amateurs and were not allowed to compete in Olympic Games.
In late January 1913, U.S. newspapers published stories announcing that Thorpe had played professional baseball. Thorpe had indeed played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay; reportedly as little as $2 a game and as much as $35 ($815 in current dollar terms) a week.
Although the public did not seem to care much about Thorpe’s past, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and especially its secretary James Edward Sullivan, took the case very seriously. Thorpe wrote a letter to Sullivan, in which he admitted playing professional baseball.
Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals, and awards, and declared him a professional.
He died on March 24, 1964. Patricia Askew, his third wife, was with him when he died.
In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement. In an unusual ruling, they declared that Thorpe was co-champion with Bie and Wieslander, although both athletes had always said they considered Thorpe to be the only champion. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, the IOC presented two of Thorpe’s children, Gale and Bill, with commemorative medals. Thorpe’s original medals were held by museums but were stolen and have not been recovered.
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