Jim Thorpe - the Native all-American athlete, sportsman and actor
DEFINING MOMENTS:THE LIFE experience of Jim Thorpe looms large over the first half of the American 20th century. Had his athletic exploits been confined to the fortnight in 1912 when he captivated crowds at the Stockholm Olympics, his story would have been remarkable. But Thorpe, born in the Oklahoma Territory into Irish, French and Native American heritage, was one of the most versatile and complete sportsman to ever emerge from his country.
He was two years old and living in the town of Bellemont when, over Christmas of 1890, the massacre of the Sioux Indians at Pine Ridge, South Dakota occurred, the act which finally broke Native American resistance to the fact that their way of life had been ended for them.
Thorpe’s athletic prowess enabled him to transcend the blunted expectations of tens of thousands of Native Americans consigned to aimless existences on the reservations. His adolescence was the stuff of frontier-country hardships common to the time: his twin brother Charles died when he was 10 (typhoid), his mother Charlotte when he was 12 (in childbirth).
His father Hiram, concerned by Jim’s moodiness and wanderlust, sent him to Carlisle, the government-run Indian school in Pennsylvania. By the time Thorpe was 15, Hiram had died too (of snakebite). He was on his own. At Carlisle, his prodigious athleticism caught the eye of Glenn “Pop” Warner, often credited with devising the modern blueprint for gridiron, and the coach’s only difficulty was to decide whether to have Thorpe concentrate on track and field or ball sports.
It didn’t matter: Thorpe excelled at everything.
By the time he qualified for the USA Olympic team, he was already regarded as one of the best college players in college football. In Stockholm, Thorpe won the decathlon and then passed some time by finishing fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump.
Famously, Thorpe had only learned how to throw the javelin just two months before the summer games began. He dominated the event to such an extent that it became a procession. His time of four minutes 40.1 seconds in the 1,500 metres would not be surpassed for 60 years.
Hugo Wieslander, Charles Lomberg and Gustaf Holmer, who finished second, third and fourth were all Swedish and so Thorpe’s supremacy had a vivid impact on the host nation.
Along with a jewel-pebbled chalice from Czar Nicholas or Russia, Thorpe was presented a bust of King Gustav V by the Swedish royal himself who told the American: “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe reputedly gave the jaunty reply of “Thanks, King” before moving on.
The Stockholm Olympics were, of course, the last before the first World War and, hardly coincidentally, the last to issue solid gold medals.
Thorpe got to keep his for just a year. His success in Sweden had made him a cause celebre and, during a period when most prominent Native Americans were eking out a living in the last of the Wild West touring extravaganzas, Thorpe was given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. “I heard people yelling my name and I couldn’t realise how one fellow could have so many friends,” he said of that event.
His legend was further embellished when he starred in the Carlisle versus West Point football game in November 1912, a heavily symbolic encounter which pitted Native Americans against Army Cadettes.
But by 1913, newspaper reports suggested that he had earned money as a professional sports man prior to the Olympics. Thorpe admitted it was true: he had briefly left Carlisle in 1909 and had earned a meagre wage playing minor league baseball in North Carolina.
In a letter Thorpe wrote to the Amateur Athletic Union, he admitted his culpability but pleaded genuine ignorance of the rules. “I have received offers amounting to thousands of dollars since my victories because I did not care to make money from my athletic skill,” he pointed out in the letter.
It was no use. His name was erased from the records book and he returned the medals and trophies. Soon afterwards he embarked on a nomadic professional career as a baseball star with the New York Giants and later, the Boston Braves and played football with the Canton Bulldogs – the NFL Hall of Fame was later located in the Ohioan town to honour that fact.
Thorpe travelled the world as an athlete and also hopped from team to team. By the late 1920s, big time sport had finished with him and real wealth had eluded him. Like many fading athletes of the era, he gravitated towards Hollywood in the hope of reinventing himself as a celluloid star. The best he could do was to pick up bit-parts in the westerns that the industry was churning out. He participated in over 70 films, frequently playing “good” Indians but often in uncredited roles and for small pay.
It was during his Hollywood years that he took his most notable stance for the Native American cause, forming a lobby group to ensure genuine Indians were cast in support roles. But he often had to supplement his income. A newspaper photographer snapped him digging foundations on what would become the Los Angeles county hospital.
The closing decades of his life were overshadowed by heavy drinking. When he died prematurely in 1953, the cause to have him reinstated as an Olympian was still ongoing.
It was taken up by several of his children, with Grace the most vocal advocate. The case against Thorpe was flimsy from the start: official IOC rules stated that any objection to the amateur credential had to be lodged within 30 days of the competition. For decades, the IOC resisted calls for Thorpe’s reinstatement – it has been since noted that Avery Brundage, president of the IOC from 1952-72, had been a frustrated rival of Thorpe’s during the US trials of 1912.
Not until 1983 were Thorpe’s medals returned to his family and his achievements recognised.
As a teenager, Thorpe had been restless, hopping freight trains and working on farms during several breaks he made from boarding school. The sense of restlessness that characterised his life – he moved from location to location – continued after his death. Bizarrely, Patsy, his third wife, decided to allow the civic authorities of Mauch Chunk, an impoverished town in Pennsylvania, to purchase his remains. In return, they renamed their area Jim Thorpe, built his tomb and continue to honour his legacy.
His remaining two sons are among those engaged in the lobby to have Thorpe re-interred in his home state of Oklahoma.
Like the long wait for his medals, Jim Thorpe’s journey home promises to be slow in completion. Some of the films in which he appeared are sometimes shown today but he was too old to play the role which would have suited him best. It went to Burt Lancaster and was called Jim Thorpe, All-American.