It’s been 100 years since Jim Thorpe dashed through the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, and we’re still chasing him. Greatest-evers are always hard to quantify, but Thorpe is especially so, a laconic, evasive passerby who defies Olympic idealizing. A breakfast of champions for Thorpe was no bowl of cereal. It was fried squirrel with creamed gravy after running all night in the woods at the heels of his dogs. Try catching up with that.
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He was a reticent Sac and Fox Indian from the Oklahoma frontier, orphaned as a teenager and raised as a ward of government schools, uncomfortable in the public eye. When King Gustaf V of Sweden placed two gold medals around Thorpe’s neck for winning the Olympic pentathlon and decathlon and pronounced him the greatest athlete in the world, he famously muttered, “Thanks,” and ducked more illustrious social invitations to celebrate at a succession of hotel bars. “I didn’t wish to be gazed upon as a curiosity,” he said.
Thorpe’s epic performance in the 15 events that made up the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Summer Games remains the most solid reflection we have of him. Yet even that has a somewhat shadowy aspect. The International Olympic Committee stripped his medals and struck his marks from the official record after learning that he had violated the rules of amateurism by playing minor-league baseball in 1909-10.
“Those Olympic records are the best proof that he was superb, and they aren’t official,” says Kate Buford, author of a new biography of Thorpe, Native American Son. “He’s like the phantom contender.”
Phantomness has left him open to stigma and errors. For instance, it was popularly believed that Thorpe was careless of his feats, a “lazy Indian” whose gifts were entirely bestowed by nature. But he was nonchalant only about celebrity, which he distrusted. “He was offhand, modest, casual about everything in the way of fame or eminence achieved,” recalled one of his teachers, the poet Marianne Moore.
In fact, Thorpe was a dedicated and highly trained athlete. “I may have had an aversion for work,” he said, “but I also had an aversion for getting beat.” He went to Stockholm with a motive: He wanted to marry his sweetheart, Iva Miller. Her family disapproved of the match, and Thorpe was out to prove that a man could make a good enough living at games to support a wife. Point proved: They would be married in 1913. Photographs of him at the time verify his seriousness of purpose, showing a physique he could only have earned with intense training. He was a ripped 185 pounds with a 42-inch chest, 32-inch waist and 24-inch thighs.
“Nobody was in his class,” says Olympic historian Bill Mallon. “If you look at old pictures of him he looks almost modern. He’s cut. He doesn’t look soft like the other guys did back then. He looks great.”
The physique was partly the product of hard labor in the wilderness of the Oklahoma Territory. By age 6, Thorpe could already shoot, ride, trap and accompany his father, Hiram, a horse breeder and bootlegger who would die of blood poisoning, on 30-mile treks stalking prey. Jim Thorpe was an expert wrangler and breaker of wild horses, which he studied for their beautiful economy of motion and tried to emulate. Clearly the outdoors taught him the famous looseness of movement so often mistaken for lassitude. “He moved like a breeze,” sportswriter Grantland Rice observed.
The discovery of Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the government-run boarding institution for Native Americans he attended from 1904 to 1913, between bouts of truancy, is a well-worn story. In 1907 he was ambling across the campus when he saw some upperclassmen practicing the high jump. He was 5-foot-8, and the bar was set at 5-9. Thorpe asked if he could try—and jumped it in overalls and a hickory work shirt. The next morning Carlisle’s polymath of a football and track coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, summoned Thorpe.
“Have I done anything wrong?” Thorpe asked.