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The Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century

Jim Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic gold medals in 1913, but it was not because of illegal drugs, cheating, or bribery. It was because of baseball.

Thorpe was a Native American from Oklahoma. He went to the Sac and Fox Indian Agency school in Stroud, OK, but dropped out. Later he attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA, where he was coached by “Pop” Warner, one of the most influential coaches of football history. But Thorpe’s skills went beyond football. He ran track and field and played lacrosse and baseball. In 1912, Thorpe led Carlisle to a 27–6 victory over Army, whose team included a young Dwight Eisenhower.

Photograph of Jim Thorpe, ca. 1910 (ARC 595347)

In 1912, Thorpe competed in the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. He was part of both the decathlon and pentathlon teams. For the pentathlon, he competed in the long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter dash, discus throw, and 1500-meter run. In the decathlon, Thorpe earned 8,412 points and established a world record. Thorpe won gold medals in both events. When he returned home, there was a ticker-tape parade in his honor in New York City.

In addition to the track and field events in Stockholm, Thorpe also played some baseball in 1912. It was the first time baseball was included in the Olympics, and the exhibition game was played between the United States and host country Sweden. The American team was made of up athletes from the track and field delegation, while the Swedish team came from the Vesterås Baseball Club.

But it wasn’t this baseball game that got Thorpe disqualified and stripped of his medals. It was the two seasons he played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League. Although Thorpe earned very little money as a player (although college students often played under aliases, which Thorpe did not do), this violated the very strict amateur status required of Olympic athletes. The story broke six months after the Olympics, and eventually Thorpe was stripped of his medals.

Excerpt of record of Jim Thorpe, Carlisle Indian Industrial School (ARC 300328)

Thorpe went on to play baseball with the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds, play football, and even played basketball. He was the first president of the American Professional Football Association, now the NFL. The Associated Press later named him “The Greatest Athlete of the First Half of the Century.”

But after he retired from football in 1928, he struggled to find work during the Great Depression and suffered from alcoholism. He died in 1953.

Three decades later, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement. He was once again an Olympic gold medal winner.

Jim Thorpe shaking hands with a group of admirers. (ARC 595392)

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Comments

Comment from Jonathan Jacobs
Time August 9, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I am just glad that the mistake was corrected. It also has taken the IOC a very long time for them to make changes.