Jim Thorpe was the perfect example of the American Dream. Of mixed Irish/French and Native American ancestry, the great athlete was proof that you could achieve anything as long as you had talent, dedication and determination in an era when it mattered so much where you came from.
Thorpe was born May 28, 1888 in Bellemont, Oklahoma. The local indigenous name for the settlement translated to
bright path and his most famous son was soon on a glittering rise to the pinnacle of the sport. He shined at the local Carlisle Indian School, where his talent in whatever athletic event he attempted was obvious to all.
Having earned a spot on the US team for the fifth edition of the Modern Olympics, Thorpe stole the show in Stockholm in 1912, winning the Pentathlon and Decathlon by huge margins and setting world records in the process. He also placed fourth in the main high jump competition.
riches to rags
The world was at Thorpe’s feet, but then, on January 27, 1913, everything went wrong. The International Olympic Committee decreed that he should forfeit his gold medals upon discovering that Thorpe had been paid to play baseball in 1909 and 1910. The IOC at the time had strict rules that all competitors must be amateurs. The sums involved were meager, between $20-35 per week.
It’s ridiculous now, when multimillionaires like Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and, in years to come, perhaps Tiger Woods take the Olympic stage.
Not surprisingly, Thorpe said to hell with athletics and threw in his lot with professional football and baseball field teams, with some success. He also went on to act in films, but alcohol dependency got the better of him and he died tragically, penniless, in 1953.
Salvation Comes Too Late
Long after his death, with the IOC gradually loosening its rules on amateurism to keep the Games relevant and attract the sport’s top stars, a wave of public opinion urged them to reinstate Thorpe.
Eventually, in 1983, his sons were presented with commemorative medals, their original gongs were stolen from a museum, and Thorpe was returned to his rightful place in the Olympic pantheon.
Gone but not forgotten, Thorpe was lauded as the third greatest American sportsman of the 20th century, behind Babe Ruth and Jordan, to add to his Hall of Fame accolades from professional and college football, the U.S. Olympic Movement and U.S. Athletics. USA. Association.