Jim Thorpe lived a life of high triumph and bitter despair, both of which pursue him today, almost 30 years after his death. The decision last week by the executive board of the International Olympic Committee to restore his amateur status was most gratifying to his descendants and fans. Yet it contained the futility of all posthumous gestures and thus served to remind us that the political arm twisting that led to Thorpe's reinstatement should have been done while he was still alive.
Though he never publicly pined—pining had no place in his hard-boiled nature—for the two gold medals that were taken away from him after the 1912 Olympics, members of Thorpe's family agree that his life would have been brighter without the shadow cast by the loss of the medals, on a charge of professionalism. Thorpe could have used one fewer shadow; the bottle had caused him unhappiness enough.
But even as one chapter closes on the strange and sad Thorpe saga, another remains open: that of his unrestful soul. His body lies in a small town called Jim Thorpe in northeastern Pennsylvania, which was Mauch Chunk when Thorpe was alive. Thorpe presumably didn't know of the town, and almost certainly he never visited it. His third wife, the late Patricia Askew Thorpe, handled the burial arrangements, and as we shall see, they were odd arrangements indeed. Thorpe's sons and daughters, meanwhile, say that his soul is doomed to wander until he is returned to his native Oklahoma and given a proper Indian burial.
No one on either side—the citizenry of Jim Thorpe or the Thorpe family—is hurling epithets at the other. Indeed, the strongest feelings of divisiveness have come from within the town itself, where some people want nothing to do with the Thorpe legacy. No member of the Thorpe family disputes the fact that the town has a clear legal claim to Thorpe's remains. The family simply believes the town should willingly give up Thorpe's body because he wanted to be buried with his Indian ancestors. Town officials, on the other hand, have no intention of surrendering the body and altering the contract they made 28 years ago with Patricia Thorpe, which stipulated that as long as the town is named Jim Thorpe, the body of Jim Thorpe shall remain there.
At this point, there's no reason to believe that Thorpe's body will be moved. But for 70 years there was no reason to believe that Thorpe's amateur status would be changed, either. Two people deserve primary credit for that: author-historian Robert W. Wheeler and arm twister William E. Simon, president of the United States Olympic Committee.
It was 15 years ago that the 38-year-old Wheeler first became interested in Thorpe, the magnificent natural athlete who excelled at collegiate and pro football, major league baseball and track and field, and was named the athlete of the half century by the Associated Press. Wheeler has spent a lot of time and money trying to rewrite one aspect of Thorpe's history. His efforts were rewarded on Oct. 13, when the IOC decision came down. Even after Wheeler's biography of Thorpe (originally entitled Pathway to Glory and later reissued as Jim Thorpe: World's Greatest Athlete) was published in 1975, Wheeler continued to uncover the circumstances of Thorpe's disqualification. At first, Wheeler worked part time on Thorpe projects out of his home in Alexandria, Va. Last February he and his wife, Florence Ridlon, established the Jim Thorpe Foundation with an office in Washington. They are the foundation's only full-time employees.
Had it not been for the politics of international amateur athletics, Wheeler would not have had to work so hard to get Thorpe reinstated. Details vary from account to account, but both of Thorpe's chief biographers, Wheeler and Jack Newcombe (The Best of the Athletic Boys) agree on the major points.
In the summers of 1909 and 1910, Thorpe received either $2 a game (Wheeler) or $25 to $35 a week (Newcombe) for playing semipro baseball for the Rocky Mount and Fayetteville, N.C. entries in the Eastern Carolina Association. It was a common enough practice for collegians in those days. Unlike some of the other players, however, Thorpe used his real name, either because he was ignorant of the rules of amateurism (Wheeler) or because he had no intention of returning to the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School in the fall of 1910 (Newcombe). Indeed, after leaving Carlisle in 1909, he didn't go back to the school until the fall of 1911.
With his semipro baseball career apparently only a memory, Thorpe made the U.S. team for the Olympic Games at Stockholm in 1912. There he became the only athlete ever to win both the pentathlon and the decathlon. (The events of the decathlon were the same then as now. The pentathlon consisted of the long jump, javelin, 200 meters, discus and 1,500 meters.) The big pre-Games American hope, Avery Brundage, who later served as president of the IOC for 20 years, finished sixth (counting Thorpe as the winner) in the pentathlon and 15th in the decathlon.
Whether those results had anything to do with Brundage's later intransigence on the subject of restoring the medals to Thorpe is a matter of conjecture, but there's no doubt that on the subject of amateurism Brundage was nothing if not stone consistent. Wheeler remembers with bitterness a short interview with Brundage when he was writing his biography of Thorpe.