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Jim Thorpe: "The Greatest Athlete" A Century Later

By Doug Williams | June 11, 2012, 11 a.m. (ET)

Jim ThorpeBefore Justin Lenhart took his current job, he knew a little bit about Jim Thorpe, but not much.

Thorpe was just a name from the past, one of many bygone stars from an era of grainy, black-and-white photos that seem so ancient when viewed from the full-color, high-definition 21st century. 

There are no YouTube videos of Thorpe that show off his athletic grace and power. From the long-distance lens of time, it’s hard to accept Thorpe as a three-dimensional superstar rather than a dated, stiff, two-dimensional image in a book or on a web page.

“I knew about him, that he won a couple of gold medals, and that he was an outstanding football player at Carlisle,” Lenhart said. “That’s all I ever knew.

“I’ve learned everything I need to know about him in the last three years, though. That’s for sure,” he added with a laugh.

Today, Lenhart is the Museum Director at the Jim Thorpe Association and Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Beginning this weekend and running through June 17, the Jim Thorpe Native American Games will take place in Oklahoma City and the event will benefit the Jim Thorpe Association.

Since taking the position, Lenhart has read volumes about Thorpe, who grew up in Oklahoma as a member of the Sac and Fox Native American nation. Lenhart has met Thorpe’s family and talked about Thorpe’s legacy and place in history with sports writers, archivists and historians.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of Thorpe’s epic performance at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Lenhart is absolutely sure of Thorpe’s prowess and believes the passage of time should take nothing away from his achievements.

“He’d have to rank as one of the greatest athletes ever, just by the numbers,” said Lenhart, ticking off Thorpe’s achievements: gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at Stockholm, college football All-American at Carlisle, pro football star and major league baseball player. “The numbers he put up on the football field were phenomenal. He never left the field. And then what he did at Stockholm has never been matched. …

“The first half of the 20th century, he was probably the greatest, and I think you would have to put him on the list of greatest American athletes ever, if not worldwide.”

A Multi-Sport Superstar

Even before Thorpe boarded a ship for Stockholm, he was a bona fide star.

As an All-America running back and defensive back at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, Thorpe, in 1911, scored 25 touchdowns in leading his team to an 11-1 record.

Carlisle that season was proclaimed by some to be the national champion, and Thorpe — who also handled Carlisle’s punting and kicking — was the biggest reason. Though not big at 6-foot-1 and about 190 pounds, he was exceptionally strong and fast.

Thorpe, who also had competed in track and field at Carlisle — some accounts suggest he was the only athlete on the team — went to the U.S. Olympic Trials in New York and qualified for the Games in the long jump, high jump and pentathlon. Because of his success in the pentathlon — where he won three events and finished second in the other two — he also was designated to the Olympic decathlon, though he’d never competed in the event.

At Stockholm, where the Games spanned nearly two-and-a-half months (May 5-July 27), Thorpe became the biggest story by dominating both multisport events.

In the pentathlon, held over just one day (July 7), Thorpe won four of the five events — the long jump, 200 meters, discus and 1,500 meters — and placed third in the javelin to easily win the gold medal.

Jim ThorpeA week later, Thorpe began the first Olympic decathlon, which was held over three days (today’s event is held over two days). Again he dominated, winning four events — the shot put, high jump, 110-meter hurdles and 1,500 meters — while setting a world record of 8,412 points.

The event culminated with his victory in the 1,500 meters, in which he ran a decathlon-record 4 minutes, 40 seconds.

His victories were a stunning achievement. Upon presenting Thorpe with his gold medals at the Closing Ceremony, Swedish King Gustav V reportedly told the athlete, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” To which Thorpe replied, “Thanks, King.”

Years later, Thorpe would call the achievements the highlight of his life. Though Thorpe had been well known before going to Sweden, the fame he achieved at the Olympic Games made him a star, both nationally and globally.

“It was Stockholm that really made him one of the first international superstars,” Lenhart said. Thorpe’s name was in newspaper headlines across America, and he was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Said Thorpe, after coming home to a hero’s welcome in New York: “I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”

“He was the first to transcend borders, just because of his accomplishments at Stockholm,” Lenhart said. “People were so amazed about what he was able to do.”

Stockholm, of course, was hardly the final chapter of Thorpe’s athletic career.

At age 25, he still had an All-America senior season ahead at Carlisle in 1912. He would become a professional football star with the Canton Bulldogs and lend his name and star power to the fledgling National Football League, which was organized in 1920. Thorpe would also play six seasons as a major league baseball player, becoming a gate attraction for John McGraw’s New York Giants.

He’s been elected to the halls of fame of both college and pro football, and his statue greets visitors at the entrance to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. He is in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.

In the age of specialization, it’s hard now to fathom how talented an athlete he was, in so many sports.

Lenhart marvels at the tales of his speed and strength and the fact that a poor kid from “out of nowhere” could be the best at anything he put his mind to.

“He apparently was just a man out of his time athletically in a lot of ways,” Lenhart said. “A man who couldn’t probably exist today in modern athletics. I mean, if a kid’s 14, 15 years old and has ability toward a certain sport, that’s what they gear him or even her toward. So the days of (multi-sport stars such as) Bo Jackson and Jim Thorpe are over.”

Dark Clouds

When James Francis Thorpe was born, his mother called him Wa-tho-huck, a Sac and Fox name meaning Bright Path. But Thorpe’s path was not entirely bright. In later years, he struggled with alcohol and financial problems. And soon after the 1912 Games, reports surfaced that Thorpe had taken small payments to play baseball in the summers before the Olympic Games. At the time, the Olympic Games were reserved for amateur athletes. 

Thorpe admitted what he had done — taking money was a common occurrence at the time, when college athletes often played under assumed names when they needed money — but Thorpe made the mistake of using his own name.

Wrote Thorpe in a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union: “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 what 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.”

In 1913, the AAU stripped him of his amateur status, and the International Olympic Committee did the same, also taking away his medals.

Though the IOC reversed its decision and restored Thorpe’s medals and records in 1982, the cloud today remains over his name.

Despite Thorpe’s tarnished legacy, his family donated his two gold medals to the United States OlympicJim Thorpe Committee in Colorado Springs during a ceremony unveiling a permanent exhibit recognizing Thorpe’s achievements. 

The exhibit also features a sculpture by Andrew M. Lester, who met Thorpe in a department store in 1932, according to Erica Hutchinson, Associate Director, Visitors’ Center and Community Relations. 

Lester promised the Olympian he would create a bust honoring him. 

It took Lester 68 years, but in 2000, Lester was on hand in Colorado for the ceremony to deliver his promise. 

Jim ThorpeThe plaque on the bust reads “1938-A Promise Made; 2000-A Promise Kept,” immortalizing the connection between the two men.

Lenhart says many visitors to his museum in Oklahoma City don’t know much about Thorpe, but they know there was some sort of scandal.

“It’s unfortunate,” Lenhart said. “If you do have a younger person or somebody who’s not necessarily into sports, doesn’t know anything about Oklahoma history or whatever, they say, ‘Well, didn’t he have his medals taken away?’ … 

“You know, the story is convoluted. I always tell people, ‘Yeah, but look into it. Look at the feats he accomplished. He wasn’t on steroids, he wasn’t on HGH. It wasn’t like he was getting paid an exorbitant amount when he was making money for those Carolina and Oklahoma minor-league teams that got him in trouble. People were quick to sell him out.”

One hundred years after his exploits at Stockholm, Thorpe is still considered by many to be one of the greatest athletes of all time. In 1950, he was overwhelmingly voted the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century. In 2001, ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” designated him the Athlete of the Century. And ESPN placed Thorpe No. 7 — just behind Jesse Owens and ahead of Willie Mays — on its list of 100 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century.

Though his star has dimmed as the decades have slid away, those who watched him compete never forgot him.

“(Jim Thorpe) was the greatest athlete who ever lived,” said 1912 U.S. Olympic teammate Abel Kiviat, who won a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at Stockholm. “What he had was natural ability. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. All he had to see is someone doing something and he tried it … and he’d do it better.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.