The legend of Jim Thorpe and some misconceptions that still exist
Before the 1912 Olympic decathlon, Jim Thorpe rarely competed in events such as the pole vault, shot put and javelin.
But Thorpe was incredibly perceptive, a technique he sharpened watching horses gallop as a child. He would study their movements and attempt to mimic their strides, Kate Buford wrote in the biography “Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe.” His observational skills would later pay dividends.
“Going into the events that he didn’t really do much of, he would watch the better athletes and watched how they did it,” Buford said. “Just like watching those horses, he memorized those movements and would practice them in his head.”
Along with Jim Thorpe’s fame and legacy, misinformation still persists about his Olympic accomplishments.
Olympic records still not recognized?
While it is clear the International Olympic Committee agreed in their 1982 decision to reinstate Thorpe as a contender in the 1912 Olympics and cast duplicate gold medals to give to his family, what happened to his records is muddled.
Thorpe exists as a “co-gold medalist” in the eyes of the IOC, as they have refused to demote Hugo Wieslander back to his original runner-up status. But his times, marks and final score in the decathlon are officially recognized by the IOC, according to Bill Mallon, the leading authority on Olympic history.
“They’re in the records books,” Mallon confirmed through email.
On the official Olympic website, Thorpe’s picture along with his gold medals and decathlon score can be viewed from the 1912 Olympics page.
The debacle continues to resonate 30 years after the decision. It was dubbed the “greatest scandal in sports history” in the 2011 edition of the World Almanac.
“The editors of the World Almanac were unanimous in considering Jim Thorpe’s virtual banishment one of the greatest sports scandals in sports history,” said Sarah Janssen, senior editor of the publication. “His singular achievements were so remarkable that to refuse to acknowledge them retroactively seemed both unjust and petty.”
Couldn’t hit a curve?
Of all the sports Thorpe tried professionally, baseball presented the largest obstacle.
While his pure athleticism lent itself to other sports, it could only carry Thorpe so far in Major League Baseball.
After carrying a lousy .231 batting average in his five years with the New York Giants, manager John McGraw sold Thorpe to the Boston Braves and wasn’t shy in explaining why.
“Baseball was the one sport that didn’t come easy to him,” Buford said. “He had been plagued with this tagline that he couldn’t hit a curveball and he was a failure in Major League Baseball.”
After a month with the Braves in 1919, Thorpe was batting .411 and leading the National League that also featured Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson.
Although a leg injury robbed Thorpe of enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, he finished the 1919 season with a .327 average.
When reflecting upon this season, Thorpe said at the time, “I must have a hit a few curves.”