Why Are Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Records Still Not Recognized?

100 years ago, Jim Thorpe became the greatest American Olympian of all time, but not if you ask the IOC

Jim 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. (Bettmann / Corbis)
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“Son, you’ve only broken the school record in the high jump. That’s all.”

Carlisle, a hybrid trade school and academy, was devoted to the forcible cultural assimilation of American Indian children. Those who knew Thorpe as a schoolboy received the purest impression of him; before he was a champion at his peak, or a guarded celebrity, he was just a head ducker with an uncertain mouth who would have been happy to hunt and handle horses for the rest of his life. He hated the shut-in strictures of school, and he bolted every formal institution he attended.

Carlisle’s piano teacher, Verna Whistler, described Thorpe as guileless. “He had an open face, an honest look, eyes wide apart, a picture of frankness but not brilliance. He would trust anybody.” Moore was an unconventional young Bryn Mawr graduate when she went to work as a teacher at Carlisle. She taught typing, stenography and bookkeeping, basic courses designed to help students conduct their business in the white man’s world. She recalled Thorpe as “liked by all rather than venerated or idolized....[His] modesty, with top performance, was characteristic of him, and no back talk, I never saw him irascible, sour or primed for vengeance.” Moore noted that Thorpe “wrote a fine, even clerical hand—every character legible; every terminal curving up—consistent and generous.” His appearance on the gridiron, she said, was the “epitome of concentration, wary, with an effect of plenty in reserve.”

With students from 6 to college age, at its height Carlisle had an enrollment of no more than 1,000 pupils, yet on the collegiate playing fields it was the equal of the Ivy League powers, one of the more remarkable stories in American sports. This was partly thanks to Thorpe, who won renown in football, baseball, track and lacrosse, and also competed in hockey, handball, tennis, boxing and ballroom dancing. At track meets, Warner signed him up for six and seven events. Once, Thorpe single-handedly won a dual meet against Lafayette, taking first in the high hurdles, low hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put and discus throw.

The result of all this varied activity was that he became highly practiced in two methods modern athletes now recognize as building blocks of performance: imitation and visualization. Thorpe studied other athletes as closely as he had once studied horses, borrowing their techniques. He was “always watching for a new motion which will benefit him,” Warner said.

Until 1912, Thorpe had never thrown a javelin or pole-vaulted. He was so inexperienced in the javelin that when he competed in the Eastern Olympic Trials in New York’s Celtic Park, he didn’t know he could take a running start. Instead he threw from a standing position with “the awkwardness of a novice,” according to a reporter. Nevertheless, he managed second place.

By the time Thorpe embarked for Stockholm aboard the ocean liner Finland with the rest of the U.S. Olympic contingent—among whom numbered a West Pointer named George Patton and a Hawaiian swimmer named Duke Kahanamoku—he was in the peak shape of his life and spent a good deal of his time tapering and visualizing. This led to the legend that he was merely a skylarker. Newspaperman Francis Albertanti of the New York Evening Mail saw Thorpe relaxing on a deck chair. “What are you doing, Jim, thinking of your Uncle Sitting Bull?” he asked.

“No, I’m practicing the long jump,” Thorpe replied. “I’ve just jumped 23 feet eight inches. I think that will win it.”

It’s a favorite game of sportswriters to argue the abstract question of which athletes from different eras would win in head-to-head competition. The numbers Thorpe posted in Stockholm give us a concrete answer: He would.

Thorpe began the Olympics by crushing the field in the now-defunct pentathlon, which consisted of five events in a single day. He placed first in four of them, dusting his competition in the 1,500-meter run by almost five seconds.


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