One of the greatest athletes of all time, Jim Thorpe died impoverished without seeing his Olympic gold medals restored.
The late Reuben Snake, onetime chairman of the American Indian Movement and member of the Winnebago Nation, said that to be an Indian meant “having every third person you meet tell you about his great-grandmother who was a real Cherokee princess” and “nine out of 10 people tell you how great Jim Thorpe was.” Thorpe, in that sense, was one of the few Native Americans of the 20th century whom people could cite and praise even if they knew little else about the Indigenous experience. From the moment I started telling acquaintances that I was writing a book about Thorpe, the reply was often some variation of “Oh, I read a book about him in fourth grade.” Many of those people were in fourth grade long before there was much effort to diversify school libraries. Thorpe was an archetype, the gifted athlete, and a stereotype, the romanticized noble Indian. He was a foundation story of American sports.
As with most public figures of that sort, the man became shrouded in myth. As a biographer, I am interested in both — the making of the man and the creation of the myth. Born in 1887, in the Indian Territory of what later became Oklahoma, Thorpe was the quintessential underdog who rose from obscurity to become the greatest athlete in the world, the Natural who could do anything on the fields of play. He was an Olympic champion decathlete in track and field, a football All-American, a star pro and first president of what became the National Football League, and a major league baseball player, a seemingly indestructible force who ran like a wild horse thundering downhill yet was also a graceful ballroom dancer and gifted swimmer and ice skater.
When people display such rare physical gifts, there is a tendency to lift them into the realm of the superhuman, as if human magnificence is insufficient. That was certainly true with Thorpe. The hyperbolic stories told by writers and sports fans over the decades could fill many notebooks. As is also often the case, there were times when Thorpe became the storyteller of his own legend. Jim loved to recall the tale of how at Carlisle he brilliantly ran a punt back for a touchdown against Army, and when the score was nullified by a penalty, he simply repeated his touchdown gallop on the next play. He was indeed the dominant player in that game, but the back-to-back touchdown runs never happened. Nor is there any truth to his boast that during a baseball game in Texarkana he hit three home runs into three separate states, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. He did hit three home runs, but the three-state hat trick was a geographic impossibility. Mythmaking in the American tradition of George Washington, Paul Bunyan, Davey Crockett, and Babe Ruth.
Thorpe played baseball for John McGraw’s New York Giants in 1913. He won two Olympic track and field gold medals and also excelled at football, basketball, and baseball.
But there was another myth at the center of the Thorpe story, a deeper and more pernicious myth that had to do with the history and treatment of the American Indian: the myth that the Great White Father knows best. Thorpe’s life spanned a 65-year period when the dominant society believed the best way to deal with Indians was to rid them of their Indianness and make them as white as possible. It was that mentality that shaped Thorpe’s life. Much of the territory of his Sac and Fox and Potawatomi people was lost when the federal government moved to strip them of communal property, opening up vast swaths of territory to land rushes that white Oklahoma settlers and their descendants celebrated as Boomer Sooner frontier derring-do. As a teenager, he was sent away to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the federal government’s flagship Indian boarding school, where the focus was more on forced acculturation than education and the methods were crude, cruel, and dehumanizing. Football, as a college sport then largely the province of Ivy League good old boys, was considered a central component of the assimilation process.
A biographer’s responsibility is to acknowledge the complexity of human existence, its many contradictions, crosscurrents, and nuances. For all of Carlisle’s failings and questionable intentions, some of its students considered their boarding school years among the best of their lives. Jim sometimes claimed that himself. It is fair to say that few would know or care about him had he not gone there and shown his unmatched athletic skills to the nation and the world. Whether he would have had a happier life without the surrounding hoopla of fame is another matter. He was not a loner and had a touch of mischief to him, but he was innately modest and comfortable away from the limelight. He was most relaxed while stalking the woods or sitting on a riverbank or ocean pier, hunting or fishing. In the years after his playing skills faded, his life was troubled by alcohol, broken marriages, deferred dreams, lost opportunities, and financial distress resulting from a generosity that lapsed into wastefulness. He was the American nomad, migrating from job to job, state to state, in search of a peace he never found before he died of a heart attack in a trailer park in Southern California in 1953 at age 65.
Jim Thorpe’s American Indian name, Wa-tho-Huk, translates as “path lit by great flash of lightning” or “bright path.” The first Native American to win Olympic gold for the U.S., he was stripped of his medals when the International Olympic Committee discovered he had breached amateur status by playing minor league ball in 1909-10. In 1982, the IOC presented duplicate medals to Thorpe’s family but recorded him only as co-champion. In 2022, 110 years after his triumphs at the Stockholm Olympics (opposite), the IOC reinstated Thorpe as the sole winner of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon.
At times Jim was his own worst enemy, yet throughout his life he had to deal with powerful white men who tried to control his fate. Some presented themselves as his savior, others as his moral superior. The most notable example of the savior type was Pop Warner, Jim’s coach at Carlisle. In Jim Thorpe —All American, the 1951 movie version of his life, Thorpe (played by movie star Burt Lancaster) is the main character, but Warner, who consulted on the script, is portrayed as the hero and wise man who discovered the raw athlete, molded him into a superstar, and then tried time and again in later years to save Jim from his worst impulses. The true story is less flattering. Warner was a hypocrite if not a coward. At the time of Jim’s greatest peril, when his Olympic medals were being taken from him because he had played bush league baseball, Pop lied and feigned innocence to save his own reputation while portraying Jim as the ignorant native. There is strong evidence that James E. Sullivan, then the big man of American amateur athletics and the person most responsible for the decision to deny Thorpe his medals and records, was also duplicitous during that ordeal even as he claimed to be upholding the righteous cause of pure amateurism.
And then there was Avery Brundage, once a decathlete himself, a teammate and rival of Jim’s at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Brundage performed miserably there and dropped out of the competition when the going got tough, an early refutation of his later bromide that in the Olympic ideal participation was what mattered, not performance. He went on to a high-flying career as the holier-than-thou arbiter of all things amateur in the world of sports, and for decades as he rose through the ranks from president of the U.S. Olympic Committee to head of the International Olympic Committee, he consistently refused to reconsider the injustice done to Thorpe, often complaining that he, not Jim, was the victim of unfair treatment. In the long list of Brundage misdeeds, others were more inexcusable, especially his cozying up to the Nazi organizers of the 1936 games in Berlin, but his condescending and dismissive attitude toward Thorpe stood as Exhibit A in the hypocrisy of moral superiority.
Thorpe’s unparalleled athletic accomplishments did not make his life triumphant. His days were marked by loss. The loss of tribal lands. The loss of his twin brother in childhood. The loss of his namesake son at age 3. The loss of his Olympic medals and records. His loss of money and security and equilibrium. There is a temptation, then, to view his story as tragedy, but I emerged from my study of his life with a different interpretation. It is also a story of perseverance against the odds. For all his troubles, whether caused by outside forces or of his own doing, Jim Thorpe did not succumb. He did not vanish into whiteness. The man survived, complications and all, and so did the myth.
Learn more about the Summer Olympics that changed Jim Thorpe’s life.
Reprinted from Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe, by David Maraniss.
This article appears in our February/March 2024 issue.
Photography: Library of Congress