Jacobus (James) Franciscus “Wa-Tho-Huk” Thorpe was born May 28, 1888 as a twin on his mother’s allotment near the town of Bellemont in Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma).
His twin brother was named Charlie.
Jim Thorpe’s paternal grandfather was Irish and his paternal grandmother was a Sac and Fox Native American Indian.
His maternal grandfather was French and his maternal grandmother was a Potawatomi Native American Indian.
Both of his parents were Roman Catholic.
Wa-Tho-Huk was raised as a Sac and Fox (Sauk) and his native name translates as Bright Path or “path lit by great flash of lightning.”
Then his twin brother Charlie died of pneumonia when they were nine years old.
As a result, James rebelled and ran away several times before his father sent him to an “Indian” boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas.
Two years later, his mother died in childbirth and James ran away to work on a horse ranch.
By 1904, the sixteen year old James Thorpe returned home to his father before agreeing to attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
It was here that his athletic ability was recognized for the first time and was coached by Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, one of the most influential coaches of early American football history.
Later that year his father died from gangrene poisoning after being wounded in a hunting accident, and James again dropped out of school.
He resumed farm and ranch work for a few years before returning to Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
This time, Thorpe gained nationwide attention in 1911 as a running back, defensive back, placekicker and punter when his Carlisle football team upset top ranked Harvard 18-15. Jim Thorpe actually scored all his team’s points in this game with his four field goals and his touchdown.
His football team went on to win the national collegiate championship.
Then in the spring of 1912, Jim Thorpe started training for the Olympics.
For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, two new multi-event disciplines were included, the pentathlon and the decathlon.
A pentathlon, based on the ancient Greek event, had been introduced at the 1906 Summer Olympics.
The 1912 version consisted of the long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter dash, discus throw and 1500-meter run.
The decathlon was a relatively new event in modern athletics, although it had been part of American track meets since the 1880s and a version had been featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.
Both seemed appropriate for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he had served as Carlisle’s one-man team in several track meets.
He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds.
He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in.; he also could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus 136 feet.
U.S. Olympic trials
Jim Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon.
He won the awards easily, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage.
There were only a few candidates for the decathlon team, however, and the trials were canceled.
Jim Thorpe’s schedule in the Olympics was busy. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he competed in the long jump and high jump. The first competition was the pentathlon. He won four of the five events and placed third in the javelin, an event he had not competed in before 1912. Although the pentathlon was primarily decided on place points, points were also earned for the marks achieved in the individual events.
Jim Thorpe won the gold medal.
That same day, he qualified for the high jump final in which he placed fourth, and also took seventh place in the long jump. Even more remarkably, because someone had stolen his shoes just before he was due to compete, he found some discarded ones in a rubbish bin and won his medals wearing them.
Jim Thorpe’s final event was the decathlon, his first — and as it turned out, his only — Olympic decathlon. Strong competition from local favorite Hugo Wieslander was expected. Thorpe, however, easily defeated Wieslander by more than 700 points. He placed in the top four in all ten events, and his Olympic record of 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades.
Overall, Thorpe won eight of the 15 individual events comprising the pentathlon and decathlon.
As was the custom of the day, the medals were presented to the athletes during the closing ceremonies of the games.
Along with the two gold medals, Thorpe also received two challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon.
Several sources recount that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world”, to which Thorpe replied, “Thanks, King”.
Apart from his track and field appearances, he also played in one of two exhibition baseball games at the 1912 Olympics, which featured two teams composed of U.S. track and field athletes.
At home, Jim Thorpe was honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway.
He remembered later, “I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”
In 1912, strict rules regarding amateurism were in effect for athletes participating in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions, were sports teachers or had competed previously against professionals, were not considered amateurs and were barred from competition.
In late January 1913, the Worcester Telegram published a story announcing that Jim Thorpe had played professional baseball, and other U.S. newspapers followed up the story.
Thorpe had indeed played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay; reportedly as little as US$2 ($50 today) per game and as much as US$35 ($877 today) per week.
College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally but most used aliases, unlike Thorpe.
Although the public didn’t seem to care much about Thorpe’s past, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and especially its secretary James Edward Sullivan, took the case very seriously.
Jim Thorpe wrote a letter to Sullivan, in which he admitted playing professional baseball:
…”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. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names….”
His letter didn’t help.
The AAU decided to withdraw Jim Thorpe’s amateur status retroactively and asked the International Olympic Commission (IOC) to do the same.
Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Jim Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards and declare him a professional.
Although Jim Thorpe had played for money, the AAU and IOC did not follow their own rules for disqualification.
The rulebook for the 1912 Olympics stated that protests had to be made “within” 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the games.
The first newspaper reports did not appear until January 1913, about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded.
There is also some evidence that Jim Thorpe’s amateur status had been questioned long before the Olympics, but the AAU had ignored the issue until being confronted with it in 1913.
The only positive element of this affair for Jim Thorpe was that, as soon as the news was reported that he had been declared a professional, he received offers from professional sports clubs and went on to play professional baseball, football and basketball.
In 1913, Jim Thorpe married Iva Miller, whom he had met at Carlisle. They went on to have four children.
From 1920 to 1921, Jim Thorpe also became the first president of the American Professional Football Association (APFA), which would become the National Football League (NFL) in 1922.
Jim Thorpe played professional sports until age 41.
After his athletic career, Jim Thorpe struggled to provide for his family.
He found it difficult to work a non-sports-related job and never held a job for an extended period of time.
His wife Iva filed for divorce in 1925, claiming desertion.
In 1926, Jim married Freeda V. Kirkpatrick. She was working for the manager of the baseball team for which he was playing at the time. They went on to have four sons.
During the Great Depression in particular, he had various jobs, among others as an extra for several movies, usually playing an American Indian chief in Westerns.
He also worked as a construction worker, a doorman (bouncer), a security guard and a ditchdigger, and briefly joined the United States Merchant Marine in 1945.
Jim Thorpe also suffered from alcoholism which led to failing health.
His second wife Freeda divorced Thorpe in 1941 after 15 years of marriage.
Jim then married Patricia Askew on June 2, 1945.
He then ran out of money sometime in the early 1950s.
When hospitalized for lip cancer in 1950, he was admitted as a charity case.
At a press conference announcing the procedure, his wife, Patricia, wept and pleaded for help, saying, “[W]e’re broke…. Jim has nothing but his name and his memories. He has spent money on his own people and has given it away. He has often been exploited.”
In early 1953, Thorpe went into heart failure for the third time while dining with Patricia in their home in Lomita, California.
He was briefly revived by artificial respiration and spoke to those around him, but lost consciousness shortly afterward and died on March 28, 1953 at the age of 64.
Olympic medals reinstated
Over the years, supporters of Jim Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic titles reinstated.
US Olympic officials, including former teammate and later president of the IOC Avery Brundage, rebuffed several attempts, with Brundage once saying, “Ignorance is no excuse.”
Most persistent were the author Robert Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon.
They succeeded in having the AAU and United States Olympic Committee overturn its decision and restore Thorpe’s amateur status before 1913.
In 1982, Wheeler and Ridlon established the Jim Thorpe Foundation and gained support from the U.S. Congress.
Armed with this support and evidence from 1912 proving that Thorpe’s disqualification had occurred after the 30-day time period allowed by Olympics rules, they succeeded in making the case to the IOC.
In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement.
In an unusual ruling, they declared that Jim Thorpe was co-champion with Bie and Wieslander, although both of these athletes had always said they considered Thorpe to be the only champion.
In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, the IOC presented two of Thorpe’s children, Gale and Bill, with commemorative medals. JimThorpe’s original medals had been held in museums, but they had been stolen and have never been recovered.
Recently, in a poll of sports fans conducted by ABC Sports, Thorpe was voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century out of 15 other athletes including Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Nicklaus, and Michael Jordan.
Now WE know em