Monday, December 26, 2011
The Story of Jim Thorpe...Olympic Champion 1912
Jim Thorpe was born on an Indian reservation in 1888. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and an Indian mother. His mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Potawatomi mother, a descendant of Chief Louis Vieux. He spent his childhood working on a farm and attending an Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There, his athletic ability was recognised after he reportedly began his athletic career 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.
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, his all-round ability stood out in all these events to 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. The pentathlon in 1912 consisted of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-metre dash, the discus throw and the 1500-metre run. The decathlon was a relatively new event of the then modern athletics. In preparation for it, Thorpe 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.
His schedule in the Olympics was busy. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he competed in the individual 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. 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.
As was the custom of the day, the medals were presented to the athletes during the closing ceremonies of the games. 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 honoured with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. He remembered later, "I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn't realise how one fellow could have so many friends."
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 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 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, were sports teachers, or had competed previously against professionals, were not considered amateurs and were barred from competition. In late January 1913, U.S. newspapers published stories announcing that Thorpe had played professional baseball. Thorpe had indeed played professional baseball in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay; reportedly as little as $2 ($47 today) a game and as much as $35 ($822 today) a week.College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally, but most used aliases, unlike Thorpe.
Although the public did not seem to care much about Thorpe's past, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) took the case very seriously. Thorpe wrote a letter to the AAU in which he admitted playing professional baseball..."I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names”
His letter did not help. The AAU decided to withdraw Thorpe's amateur status retroactively and asked the International Olympic Commission (IOC) to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals, and awards, and declared him a professional. Although Thorpe had played for money, the AAU and IOC did not follow the rules for disqualification. The rulebook for the 1912 Olympics stated that protests had to be made within 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the games. The first newspaper reports did not appear until about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded. It has been speculated that Thorpe was in fact discrimated against because of his Indian background. At the time, athletics was dominated by white and wealthy individuals who didn't have to work for a living.
Post Olympics, Thorpe became a full time professional playing both baseball and american football. He retired from professional football in 1929 at the age of 41. After his athletic career, Thorpe struggled to find work and never held a job for an extended period of time. During the Great Depression in particular, Thorpe had various jobs, among others as an extra for several movies, a construction worker, a doorman (bouncer), a security guard, and a ditch digger. He died in poverty in 1953 at the age of 64.
Over the years, supporters of Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic titles reinstated. US Olympic officials rebuffed several attempts saying, "Ignorance is no excuse." Eventually in 1982, with evidence from 1912 proving that Thorpe's disqualification had occurred after the 30-day time period allowed by Olympics rules, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe's reinstatement. 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 had been held in museums, but they had been stolen and have never been recovered.
Besides the controversary regarding the medals, there is also the bizzare tale of the town of Jim Thorpe. Following his death in 1953, Thorpe's widow was angry when the government of Oklahoma would not erect a memorial to honour him. When she heard that the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk in Pennsylvania were desperately seeking to attract business, she made a deal with civic officials. The boroughs merged, renamed the new municipality in Jim Thorpe's honour, bought the athlete's remains from his wife and erected a monument to the Oklahoma native, who began his sports career 100 miles (161 kilometres) southwest, as a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The monument site contains his tomb, two statues of him in athletic poses, and historical markers describing his life story. The grave rests on mounds of soil from Thorpe's native Oklahoma and from the Stockholm Olympic Stadium in which he won his Olympic medals.
In June 2010, Thorpe's son, Jack, filed a federal lawsuit against the borough of Jim Thorpe, seeking to have his father's remains returned to his homeland and re-interred near other family members in Oklahoma. Jack Thorpe says the agreement between his stepmother and borough officials was made against the wishes of other family members. They want him buried in Native American land.
Borough officials moved to dismiss the suit but as recently as late November, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled against the borough and allowed the lawsuit to go forward. Even now, almost 100 years after the 1912 Olympic games, the name of Jim Thorpe is still embroilled in controversy.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette has an article HERE
The BBC also has an interesting 10 minute audio podcast HERE