Many athletes are good at one sport. It’s rare, however, for an athlete to be VERY good at more than one sport. Jim Thorpe was one of those athletes. He was a rare person who excelled in both baseball and football, and won Olympic medals for track.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1888 in Oklahoma, on Sac-and-Fox Indian land. His given name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which meant “bright path.” His start as an athlete began in the schoolyards of his childhood. He often ran the twenty miles from school back to his home. While attending the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, Thorpe happened to pass some students who were practicing track. Time and again, he watched as students failed to make the high jump. Even though he was dressed in overalls, Thorpe gave it a shot, and cleared the bar!
In 1912, Thorpe competed in the Stockholm Olympics, where he won medals He won the pentathlon, came in seventh in the long jump, and set a world record in the decathlon. He met the king of Sweden, who told him he was the greatest athlete in the world. He returned to the United States and was greeted with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
Unfortunately for Thorpe, in the summers before he participated in the Olympics, he was paid to play baseball. Many amateur athletes were paid, but most used fake names to get around the rules. Thorpe used his real name. He was paid very little—just two dollars a game. However, Olympic rules stated that an athlete who was paid was not an amateur, and amateurs were not permitted to compete in the games.
In 1912, a reporter discovered that Thorpe had been paid to play baseball. Thorpe claimed he had not known of the rules (which might explain why he—unlike other athletes—had used his real name). He said, “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. I was not very wise in the ways of the world and did not realize this was wrong.” In early 1913, Thorpe’s Olympic medals were taken from him.
Thorpe eventually signed with the New York Giants, and eventually played with the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. He also played football for the NFL, and served as the first president of the American Professional Football Association.
After leaving sports, Thorpe held a variety of jobs, including working as an extra in Hollywood films. He often struggled to earn enough money to provide for his family. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe’s gold medals, roughly thirty years after his death.
Facts About Jim Thorpe:
- A town in Pennsylvania changed its name to Jim Thorpe
- Burt Lancaster portrayed Thorpe in a movie, “Jim Thorpe, All-American”
- Thorpe was buried in Pennsylvania, but his grave included mounds of soil from Oklahoma as well as the Olympic stadium in Stockholm, Sweden