By Alex Abrams | May 28, 2019, 4:19 p.m. (ET)
(L) Jim Thorpe competes at the Olympic Games Stockholm 1912; (R) Trey Hardee competes at the 2017 IAAF World Championships.

 

Trey Hardee was a junior in high school and a burgeoning multisport athlete when learned of Jim Thorpe, the so-called “world’s greatest athlete,” from a book about the greatest sports personalities of all time.

“That was the first time I had ever heard of him was in one of those kind of bathroom readers, and then I began studying the decathlon and people that came before me,” said Hardee, who went on to become a two-time world champion decathlete and the silver medalist at the Olympic Games London 2012.

“He was the first name in it. He’s the man, and this moniker of being the world’s greatest athlete began with him. He was the very first.”

Thorpe was born 132 years ago today — May 28, 1887 — on a farm outside Prague, Oklahoma. His lore has grown over the years as generations have heard stories about his childhood growing up as a member of the Sac and Fox Native American nation and his subsequent athletic dominance over multiple sports.

Thorpe became a pioneer in the nascent sport of football and a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while also playing six seasons of major league baseball. However, in Olympic circles, it’s Thorpe’s legendary performance at the Stockholm 1912 Games that continues to inspire.

Thorpe, then age 24, returned one week after winning the gold medal in the pentathlon and showed his unique combination of speed, strength and versatility over three days in winning the first Olympic decathlon, doing so while wearing two different shoes.

Thorpe won four events in the decathlon — the shot put, high jump, 110-meter hurdles and 1,500-meter — and set a new world record while cruising to the gold in dominant fashion. He scored 8,412.955 points, beating silver medalist Hugo Wieslander of Sweden by almost 700 points.

“Over history, you’ve seen guys (in the decathlon) that are just oddities like that. I myself was more of just kind of a runner and was never really great in the throwing events,” said Hardee, who has worked as an NBC Sports analyst and has earned his MBA since retiring from competition in 2017.

“And then you’ve got guys that are like unbelievable jumpers and throwers. There’s not one body type or one archetype of strengths and weaknesses that makes up a decathlete. Everybody is incredibly unique.”

Though Thorpe returned a national hero and was honored with a ticker-tape parade through New York City, the International Olympic Committee soon stripped him of his two gold medals and records from Stockholm. Rules at the time reserved the Olympics for amateur athletes, whereas it came out in 1913 that Thorpe had been paid for playing minor league baseball prior to the Stockholm Games, thus negating his amateur status. Although that controversial decision was reversed in 1982, Thorpe had died nearly 30 years earlier in 1953.

Still, the legend of Thorpe’s dominance in the decathlon remains more than a century later. 

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Hardee said he remembers seeing a photograph of Thorpe competing at the Stockholm Games in a pair mismatched shoes with two different socks — one sock was white and the other was a dark color. Thorpe reportedly took the shoes out of a garbage can after someone had stolen his pair.

It didn’t matter, though. 

Thorpe won the high jump by clearing 1.87 meters, and he took first in the shot put with a throw of 12.89 meters. He added to his lead over the field with wins in the 110-meter hurdles (15.6 seconds) and the 1,500-meter (4 minutes, 40.1 seconds).

Thorpe’s performance helped make him a national hero back in the United States, and his title as the “world’s greatest athlete” grew out a few words that King Gustav V of Sweden reportedly told Thorpe during the awards ceremony.

As the story goes, King Gustav V congratulated Thorpe by telling him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe responded simply, “Thanks, king.”

“It wasn’t that he went into it to prove that he was the best athlete in the world. … It wasn’t something that before the meet started they said, ‘OK, whoever wins this is going to be the world’s greatest athlete,’” Hardee said.

“No, the ruler of the nation was so impressed with Jim Thorpe and his physical capabilities and his total dominance of the exhibition that he was like, ‘You’re the greatest athlete in the world.’” 

Hardee said Thorpe’s legacy had been lost over the years because of the controversy surrounding the IOC stripping him of his gold medals and Olympic records, as well as struggles Thorpe had with alcohol and financial problems later in life. However, Hardee believes sports fans over the past 30 years have “deservedly so” begun to recognize Thorpe for his impact on track and field.

“I think for me, just really personally, (Thorpe’s performance in the decathlon) spoke to the history of what the United States has been in the event and made me more proud to be a U.S. decathlete,” Hardee said. 

The U.S. has since won 26 Olympic medals in the event, including 13 golds.

“I’m pretty sure other countries don’t really care that much about Jim Thorpe, but for me personally, it was more about he was the first American to do it. It was like a ‘We can do it’ (moment). Like if he can do it, I can do it.”

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.