Jim Thorpe’s 1912 golds still resonate, amaze

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) — It has been described as the first major international sports scandal, and still resonates more than a century later.

Jim Thorpe, a Native American who seemed to excel at every sport he tried, was seen as one of the world’s top athletes after winning gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Some of his performances went unmatched for decades.

The King of Sweden was certainly impressed.

“Sir,” King Gustav V told Thorpe, “you are the greatest athlete in the world.”

Thorpe was welcomed back to the United States with a ticker-tape parade in New York. Instantly, he become a celebrity.

Then, months later, the cruel kicker.

It was discovered that Thorpe, hoping to get scouted for the major leagues, had played minor league baseball over two summers in North Carolina, an infringement of the strict Olympic amateurism rules of the time. He was stripped of his gold medals.

“It hurt him deeply,” Kate Buford, author of 2010 book “Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe,” told The Associated Press. “The shame and shock of what was the first and biggest international sports scandal was like a nightmare that never ended.”

Thorpe would go on to play professional football and baseball and, to some, remains the greatest all-around athlete ever. He was voted as the Associated Press’ Athlete of the Half Century in a poll in 1950.

Yet, he never got to really cherish those gold medals from Stockholm, duplicates of which were given to his family by the International Olympic Committee in 1982 following a campaign by his family and supporters but 29 years after Thorpe’s death. His Olympic records were not reinstated, though, nor was his status as the sole gold medalist of the two events.

Earlier this month, a Bright Path Strong petition — named after Thorpe’s Native American name Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path” — was circulated in a bid to declare Thorpe the outright winner of the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912. The IOC lists him as a co-champion in the official record book. Thorpe tripled the score of his nearest competitor in the pentathlon and had 688 more points than the second-place finisher in the decathlon.

To many, it’s the least the Oklahoma native, who died in 1953, deserves for setting “the gold standard” in sport, as Buford called it, and glamorizing the Olympics.

“His example of an outsider who bested everyone at their own game on the supposedly equal playing field of sport was a huge and lasting inspiration,” she said. “It accounts for a large part of his enduring reputation and appeal to millions around the world.”

Thorpe’s athletic prowess was honed in competitive games he participated in as a youngster in his Sac & Fox/PotTawatomie tribes and at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

At the Stockholm Games, Thorpe won the pentathlon after finishing first in four of the five events, including the 1,500 meters by nearly five seconds. He placed fourth in the high jump the next day and, five days later, was seventh in the long jump. In the decathlon, he set a world record of 8,412 points, winning the high jump in mismatched shoes, and the 100 meters in 11.2 seconds in heavy rain.

Thorpe competed in several sports at Carlisle and later played professional football on several teams between 1915-28. In 1920, he served as the first president of what was to become the National Football League and was voted as a charter member of the NFL’s Hall of Fame in 1963. He also played professional baseball with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves.

No wonder Buford described Thorpe as “perhaps the greatest multi-sport athlete in American and world sport.”

She also debunked a myth around the most famous quote attributed to Thorpe.

For years, he was said to have replied “Thanks, King” after receiving that compliment from the King of Sweden.

“That was a bit of denigrating hyperbole on the part of a reporter, suggesting that as an American Indian he knew no better,” Buford said. “In fact, he simply said, respectfully: ‘Thank you.’”


Steve Douglas
Steve Douglas

UK and Nordic sports reporter for The Associated Press.