“He’s the greatest athlete of all time. Still. To me, it’s not even a question.”
As the ocean liner Finland sailed across the Atlantic Ocean towards Sweden for the 1912 Olympic Games, the United States Olympic team was loaded with star power. Among them was George Patton, who went on to become a General of the U.S. Army during World War II. There was Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, who made surfing the global sport it is today. Then, there was an American Indian named Jim Thorpe.
A journalist on board that ship saw Thorpe, whose 185-pound chiseled frame was years beyond his time, casually relaxing on a deck chair during the voyage. “What are you doing, Jim, thinking of your Uncle Sitting Bull?” the man sarcastically asked.
“No, I’m practicing the long jump,” Thorpe replied. “I’ve just jumped 23 feet, eight inches. I think that will win it.”
That wasn’t cockiness, either. That was simply Jim Thorpe. The greatest athlete whose ever lived.
The Sac and Fox Indian born in Oklahoma was orphaned when he was young and grew up as a government ward. Thorpe didn’t like attention, nor did he care for anyone heralding his incredible athletic feats. Poet Marianne Moore, who was one of Thorpe’s teachers at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, said of Thorpe, “He was offhand, modest, casual about everything in the way of fame or eminence achieved.”
There’s a story from The Smithsonian that Thorpe, who was 5-foot-8 at the time, was walking across the Carlisle campus when he saw a group of upperclassmen practicing the high jump with the bar set at 5 feet, 9 inches. Wearing overalls and a thick, hickory work shirt, Thorpe cleared the bar with ease. The next day, the kid was approached by Carlisle’s head track and football coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner.
“Have I done anything wrong?” Thorpe asked.
“Son, you’ve only broken the school record in the high jump,” the legendary coach replied. “That’s all.”
It was the discovery of a truly remarkable sports icon. Thorpe went on to excel in football, baseball, track and lacrosse, and also dominated in hockey, handball, tennis, boxing and ballroom dancing. In 1912, Thorpe led Carlisle’s football team to a 12-1-1 record, rushing for 1,869 yards and average 9.8 yards per carry.
There were two games that season where his stats weren’t recorded. It’s safe to say that Thorpe was college football’s first-ever 2,000 rusher, a feat that no player officially accomplished until Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett in 1976.
His natural ability led him to compete in the Eastern Olympic Trials at New York’s Celtic Park in 1912. Thorpe had never thrown a javelin or pole-vaulted in his life before then, both of which were required events for the decathlon. He didn’t even know he could take a running start while throwing a javelin, so he just stood there and launched it.
He took second place in the javelin and qualified for the 1912 Summer Olympics.
Thorpe’s performance in Sweden was something of a miracle. Thorpe won four out five events in the pentathlon, taking the gold medal with ease, before moving onto the three-day decathlon, which is comprised of 10 events in all the major track and field disciplines.
Before the second day of decathlon, Jim Thorpe’s shoes were stolen. Hastily, he found two different shoes lying in a garbage can to compete with. (One of them was too big, so he wore an extra sock to make it fit.) Thorpe won the high jump, then won the 110-meter hurdles with a time of 15.6 seconds. No Olympic athletes matched that time for almost 40 years.
On the third day, Thorpe, still wearing two different garbage can shoes, ran the final event — the 1,500-meter run — in 4 minutes, 40.1 seconds. At the 2016 Summer Games, Olympic champion Ashton Eaton of the United States ran that same race in 4 minutes, 23.33 seconds while wearing a modern track suit and spikes on a pristine course.
Thorpe took first place in four decathlon events, then finished fourth or higher in the six others others while wearing two different shoes. No Olympian had accomplished that record before, and no one has done it since. Ever.
Olympic historian Bill Mallon said, “[Thorpe is ] the greatest athlete of all time. Still. To me, it’s not even a question.”
As Sweden’s King Gustav V placed two Olympic gold medals around Thorpe’s neck, he said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe simply replied, “Thanks.”
“He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8, the 440 in 50.8, 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 broad-jumped 23 feet 6 inches and high-jumped 6 feet 5 inches. He pole-vaulted 11 feet, threw a shot put 47 feet 9 inches, threw the javelin 163 feet, the hammer 140 feet and the discus 136 feet.”
— From Jim Thorpe’s Obituary, h/t The New York Times
The two-time All-American college football player went on to play in the National Football League, made a short stint as a pro basketball player, and even played seven seasons of Major League Baseball after putting on one of the greatest Olympic performances ever.
It’s a shame that the International Olympic Committee refuses to acknowledge what he did in 1912.
The IOC stripped Jim Thorpe of his Olympic medals and erased him from their formal record of those Olympic games because he played minor league baseball in 1909, which ended his amateur status.
In 1982, the IOC finally returned Thorpe’s medals to his family, but still have not restored his performances to their official record books.
“It’s a damn shame it took that long, but that’s the way things work sometimes. I think it would have been restored long ago. But Avery Brundage was the chairman of the International Olympic Committee for many years. He competed in 1912 and got beat real bad by my dad.
“And of course, in 1912, there was a little bit of prejudice against Indians.”
— Richard Thorpe, Jim’s son, h/t The New York Times
A victim of racism for his Native American heritage, Thorpe didn’t give a damn about any of that. He was a quiet, reserved man who simply wanted to compete. He broke wild horses, learned to shoot, trap and ride by the time he was six years old, and he used that keen ability of studying nature to his athletic advantage. Thorpe became the world’s greatest athlete by watching others, imitating successful techniques, and putting them to use.
It’s truly remarkable how one man can do all these things, yet his greatness is never heralded in this day and age. I mean, the guy dominated the Olympics wearing two shoes of different sizes he found in a trash can.
From the Olympics to the NFL to professional baseball, there’s never been an athlete like Jim Thorpe. It’s very likely there will never be one like him again, either.