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Jim Thorpe cruelly treated by authorities

Posted: Sunday August 8, 2004 10:16PM; Updated: Sunday August 8, 2004 10:16PM
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ATHENS, Aug 9 (Reuters) -- Many repellent human traits surfaced during the tragic story of Jim Thorpe, probably the greatest all-round athlete in the history of the modern Olympics.

Both Thorpe's parents, who died during his teenage years, were part native American and at the time of his birth on May 28, 1888, racism was rife in the United States.

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Like so many disadvantaged children before and since, sport proved a way out of a dismal existence.

Thorpe was extravagantly gifted at every sport he tried. He earned letters in 11 sports at the small university of Carlisle and even won the 1912 inter-collegiate ballroom dancing championship.

He particularly excelled at American football, playing in a winning team against the elitist military academy West Point who included a future U.S. president in Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The decathlon was an obvious choice when Thorpe turned his attention to track and field and he was an automatic choice for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Thorpe warmed up by winning the now obsolete pentathlon. He then tried the decathlon, spread over three days because of the number of competitors, winning with ease.

King Gustav V handed Thorpe a silver chalice in the shape of a Viking ship lined with gold and embedded with jewels. "Sir," said the king. "You are the greatest athlete in the world."

To which Thorpe replied: "Thanks, King."

HONOURED

Thorpe was honoured with a tickertape parade in New York. "I couldn't realise how one fellow could have so many friends," he remarked.

In the following year most of these friends disappeared. A Massachusetts newspaper reported that Thorpe had been paid for playing semi-professional baseball in North Carolina in the summer of 1909 and 1910.

Asked to explain his actions by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Thorpe pleaded guilty but added with touching naivety: "I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know about such things."

Not for the first or last time, a sports organisation stuck to the letter not the spirit of the law.

The AAU struck his records from the books and the American Olympic Committee apologised to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which in turn demanded its medals back.

They also requisitioned the Viking ship which gathered dust on a shelf in the IOC library in Lausanne.

Thorpe played professional baseball for the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds and also professional football.

He was reduced to working on a construction site in Los Angeles during the Great Depression and his life began to careen downhill.

Thorpe was voted the greatest male athlete of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press in 1950 but died three years later, a bloated alcoholic in a trailer park.

Throughout the decades, any attempts at reinstatement were rebuffed by the IOC, notably by the autocratic president Avery Brundage who presided from 1952-72. "Ignorance is no excuse," he said.

Racial prejudice was undoubtedly a factor. Snobbery was another. Brundage rigidly adhered to an amateur ethic designed to keep workers in their place which was long out of date by the time of his death in 1975.

Revenge may have been a third. Brundage finished sixth in the pentathlon and 15th in the decathlon behind Thorpe at the 1912 Games.

Finally, in 1982, the IOC acknowledged it had erred.

Twenty nine years after Thorpe's death, it finally lifted the ban and returned Thorpe's name to its record books. In the following year replica medals were given to his family.

Copyright 2004 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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