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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A week later the three-day decathlon competition began in a pouring rain. Thorpe opened the event by splashing down the track in the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds—a time not equaled at the Olympics until 1948.

On the second day, Thorpe’s shoes were missing. Warner hastily put together a mismatched pair in time for the high jump, which Thorpe won. Later that afternoon came one of his favorite events, the 110-meter hurdles. Thorpe blistered the track in 15.6 seconds, again quicker than Bob Mathias would run it in ’48.

On the final day of competition, Thorpe placed third and fourth in the events in which he was most inexperienced, the pole vault and javelin. Then came the very last event, the 1,500-meter run. The metric mile was a leg-burning monster that came after nine other events over two days. And he was still in mismatched shoes.

Thorpe left cinders in the faces of his competitors. He ran it in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds. Faster than anyone in 1948. Faster than anyone in 1952. Faster than anyone in 1960—when he would have beaten Rafer Johnson by nine seconds. No Olympic decathlete, in fact, could beat Thorpe’s time until 1972. As Neely Tucker of the Washington Post pointed out, even today’s reigning gold medalist in the decathlon, Bryan Clay, would beat Thorpe by only a second.

Thorpe’s overall winning total of 8,412.95 points (of a possible 10,000) was better than the second-place finisher, Swede Hugo Wieslander, by 688. No one would beat his score for another four Olympics.

Mallon, co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians, who has served as a consultant statistician to the IOC, believes that Thorpe’s 1912 performances establish him as “the greatest athlete of all time. Still. To me, it’s not even a question.” Mallon points out that Thorpe was number one in four Olympic events in 1912 and placed in the top ten in two more—a feat no modern athlete has accomplished, not even the sprinter and long-jumper Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic gold medals between 1984 and 1996. “People just don’t do that,” Mallon says.

The Olympics weren’t the only highlights of 1912 for Thorpe. He returned to lead Carlisle’s football team to a 12-1-1 record, running for 1,869 yards on 191 attempts—more yards in a season than O.J. Simpson would run for USC in 1968. And that total doesn’t include yardage from two games Thorpe played in. It’s possible that, among the things Thorpe did in 1912, he was college football’s first 2,000-yard rusher.

Numbers like those are the ghostly outline of Thorpe’s athleticism; they burn through time and make him vivid. Without them, myth and hyperbole replace genuine awe over his feats, and so does pity at his deterioration from superstar to disgraced hero. The Olympic champion would become a barnstormer—major-league baseball player, co-founder of the National Football League and even pro basketball player—before winding up a stunt performer and Hollywood character actor. In his later life Thorpe struggled to meet financial obligations to his seven children and two ex-wives, especially during the Great Depression. He worked as a security guard, construction worker and ditch digger, among other things. When he contracted lip cancer in 1951 he sought charity treatment from a Philadelphia hospital, which led his opportunistic third wife, Patricia, to claim weepingly at a press conference that they were destitute. “We’re broke. Jim has nothing but his name and his memories. He has spent money on his own people and given it away. He has often been exploited.” Despite Patricia’s claims, however, they weren’t impoverished; Thorpe hustled tirelessly on the lecture circuit, and they lived in a modest but comfortable trailer home in suburban Lomita, California. He died there of heart failure in 1953 at age 64.

The IOC’s decision in 1912 to strip Thorpe’s medals and strike out his records was not just intended to punish him for violating the elitist Victorian codes of amateurism. It was also intended to obscure him—and to a certain extent it succeeded.

Thorpe’s public reserve didn’t help his cause. He refused to campaign for his reputation, or to fight for his Olympic medals. “I won ’em, and I know I won ’em,” he told his daughter Grace Thorpe. On another occasion he said, “I played with the heart of an amateur—for the pure hell of it.”


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