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In the centennial year of Jim Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic triumphs, the homecoming motif continues to be definitive in the life—and afterlife—of a singular Oklahoma athlete.
By Eddie Chuculate
Published September/October 2012
As the ocean liner S.S. Finland was en route to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, a reporter for the New York Evening Mail noticed Jim Thorpe sitting in silence as other athletes trained aboard the ship.
“What are you doing, Jim?” he asked. “Thinking of your uncle Sitting Bull?”
“No,” Thorpe replied. “I’m practicing the long jump. I’ve just jumped 23 feet, 8 inches. I think that will win it.”
Despite his visualization, Thorpe didn’t reach his goal. His jump of 22 feet, 7 inches placed seventh in the standalone event.
What he did do just more than a hundred years ago was shock the world by winning Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, something even he probably did not visualize.
One hundred years after the twenty-five-year-old Thorpe set the world record in the decathlon, winning four of ten events outright—the shot put, high jump, 110-meter hurdles, and 1500-meter run—his remains the performance against which all others are measured, despite the scandal that followed.
Incredibly, the 1912 Olympic decathlon was the first Thorpe had ever entered. When he first attempted a javelin throw at the 1912 Olympic Trials in Springfield, New York, he threw flat-footed, not knowing he could take a running start, and still finished second.
In Stockholm, Thorpe won four events and placed no worse than fourth in the remaining six, a feat unmatched by any decathlete in the hundred years since. Of the thirty who started the decathlon on July 13, 1912, only twelve were left for the final event, the 1500 meters. Competitors slowly dropped out while Thorpe, six feet tall and 180 pounds, finished in first place.
Thorpe’s feats in the 1912 decathlon earned him and future winners the title “World’s Greatest Athlete.” His 8412.955 points stood unmatched through four more Olympics, and his 4:40.1 time in the 1500 stood until 1972 and remains competitive today.
Olympic historian Bill Mallon believes Thorpe’s accomplishments establish him as the greatest athlete of all time.
“To me, it’s not even a question,” Mallon told Smithsonian magazine in the July/August 2012 issue.
In 1950, the Associated Press voted Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century, and in 1999, ESPN ranked him the seventh-greatest athlete of the entire century.
“Nobody was in his class,” Mallon says. “If you look at old pictures of him, he looks almost modern. He’s cut. He doesn’t look soft like the other guys back then.”
Thorpe’s Olympic domination came as a surprise, even though he was a standout athlete at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. But his Olympic performance was not without adversity. There was a driving rain during the opening 100-meter dash, and on the second day of the three-day event, Thorpe’s shoes went missing and he had to wear a pair of mismatched spikes for the remainder of the competition.
At the closing ceremonies, King Gustav V of Sweden told Thorpe, “You, sir, are the most wonderful athlete in the world.” Thorpe’s reply was simply, “Thank you,” not the “Thanks, King” of legend.
Jim Thorpe was not able to enjoy his Olympic success for long. A Worcester, Massachusetts, newspaper article published in January 1913 revealed that a few years prior to the Olympics, he had played minor-league baseball.
In response, Thorpe sent a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). It read in part: “I did not play for the money. . . but because I liked to play ball. I was not very wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong.”
Unswayed, the AAU stripped Thorpe of his records and medals and ordered the trophies returned to Sweden. Runner-up Hugo Wieslander of Sweden was named decathlon champion but refused to accept the gold medal in protest. Ferdinand Bie of Norway was declared the pentathlon winner.
Thorpe admitted to playing minor-league baseball for teams in the Eastern Carolina League towns of Rocky Mount and Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the summers of 1909 and 1910 for figures historians estimate were two dollars a game or twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a week.
It was common practice at the time for college athletes to earn money by playing in such leagues but to use fake names in order to retain their college eligibility. Thorpe used his real name, which some point to as evidence that he didn’t know he was doing anything that would affect his amateur status.
Years later, Thorpe biographer Robert W. Wheeler, who in 1981 wrote Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete, led a campaign to have Thorpe’s medals returned. In 1982, he and his wife, Florence Ridlon, gathered a hundred thousand signatures on a petition and hounded the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Thorpe’s behalf.
The AAU had reinstated Thorpe’s amateur status in 1973, followed two years later by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), but it wasn’t until 1982 that the IOC followed suit. Ridlon, while researching the case, found that the bylaws of the 1912 Olympiad stated that a protest of an athlete’s qualifications had to be made within thirty days of prize distribution. In Thorpe’s case, it had been six months.
Shortly after the IOC ruling, the organization cast replicas of Thorpe’s medals. They were officially presented to Thorpe’s oldest living daughter and son, Gail and William, on January 18, 1983, in a ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles almost thirty years after their father’s death.
Regardless of the reversal of opinion on Thorpe’s amateur status, the IOC stipulated that “the official report for these Games will not be modified.” That meant Wieslander and Bie’s marks would stand as the winning point totals in the decathlon and pentathlon for the 1912 Games, while Thorpe forever would be listed as co-champion.
John “Chief” Meyers, a Cahuilla Indian and Thorpe’s New York Giants teammate, said Thorpe confided in him one night during spring training in 1913.
“He was crying, and tears were rolling down his cheeks,” Meyers says in Lawrence S. Ritter’s 1966 book, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It. “‘You know, Chief,’ he said, ‘the King of Sweden gave me those trophies, he gave them to me. But they took them away from me, even though the guy who finished second refused to take them. They’re mine, Chief, I won them fair and square.’ It broke his heart, and he never really recovered.”
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The Jim Thorpe Historical Home, where he lived with his first wife, Iva, is located at 706 East Boston Avenue in Yale. (918) 387-2815 or jimthorpehome.com. Jim Thorpe Park is off State Highway 51 on the east side of Yale. (918) 387-2406 or yaleok.org. A monument to Jim Thorpe is on the Prague Historical Museum grounds at 1008 North Jim Thorpe Boulevard near his birthplace. (405) 567-4750 or pragueok.org.
Eddie Chuculate is a Muskogee native. A longtime Oklahoma sportswriter, he was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in 2011. His essay, “Red Moon Rising,” appeared in Oklahoma Today’s May/June 2011 issue. .