He was adjudged the ‘greatest athlete’ of the first half of the 20th century
Jim Thorpe was not just a ‘jack of all games’ because he ‘mastered’ them all.
He was not just a ‘track star’ winning gold in both pentathlon and decathlon events at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, with records to boot, but also played baseball and pro football at the highest level. Besides he was an average golfer, swimming star and adept at hockey and lacrosse and was adjudged the ‘greatest athlete’ of the first half of the 20th century.
Born James Francis Thorpe to a farmer Hiram Thorpe and his Potawatomi Indian wife, his India name ‘Wa-Tho-Huk’ meant ‘Bright Path’. And that was exactly what Jim had carved out for himself.
However in 1913 Thorpe was stripped off his Olympic gold medals for having played baseball as a semi-pro. In 1982, however, years after his passing, his records were restored and medals handed back to his family.
Troubled early days
Thorpe’s early days were riddled with trouble and tragedy. His twin brother Charlie died of pneumonia at age eight and two years later, his mother passed away.
In 1904, Thorpe joined the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle (Pennsylvania) and took to football first before turning to the track. Thanks to his all-round proficiency Thorpe made it to both the US pentathlon and decathlon teams for the Olympics even as his football career rose.
At Stockholm, while his team-mates worked hard, Thorpe, all relaxed, won the then newly-introduced pentathlon event with ease, finished fourth in high jump and seventh in long jump. In decathlon, local hero Hugo Wieslander was considered the favourite but Thorpe outclassed him by over 700 points, for his second gold and two Challenger Prizes.
The biggest compliment came from Sweden’s King Gustavi V when he declared: “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
A year later came the disgrace. Friends deserted him.
Thorpe still continued with his baseball and football career till 1929. Thereafter he worked in movies, had a stint as a public speaker and even led an all-Indian song and dance troupe ‘The Jim Thorpe Show.’ He died in 1953.
Keywords: 2012 London Olympics