While Jim Thorpe only participated in one Olympics, he has to be included on this list because of his status as one of the greatest American athletes ever. Oh, and he also completely dominated his only trip to the games.
Born in Prague, Oklahoma in 1887, Thorpe’s parents were both of mixed descent. His father Hiram was Irish and Sac and Fox Indian, while his mother Charlotte was half French and half Potawatomi. Thorpe was raised as a member of the Sac and Fox nation and his native name was “Wa-Tho-Huk,” which translated to English means “path lit by flash of lightning.”
Thorpe’s twin brother Charlie died of pneumonia when he was just nine years old and his mother passed away when he was 11. He bounced around to different schools, but wound up attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Pennsylvania. There he was coached by a man named Glenn Scobey Warner, or as some called him, “Pop.” Thorpe’s father died when he was 16, making him an orphan.
Warner coached Thorpe in track, but wasn’t sure about him trying football. His young pupil demanded it and dominated immediately. By 1911, he was gaining national attention for himself and Carlisle. The team won the 1912 national championship as he scored 25 touchdowns during the season.
Despite his success in football, Thorpe was still an unbelievable track athlete and by the time the 1912 Olympics rolled around, he was destined to be there.
At the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Thorpe participated in both the pentathlon and decathlon. The Stockholm games were the first time the pentathlon was held, and it consisted of the long jump, javelin throw, 200 meters, discus throw and 1500 meters. Thorpe thoroughly dominated the event.
The 25-year-old won the long jump, 200 meters, discus and 1500 meters, while finishing third in the javelin, an event in which he had never competed previously. He easily took the gold medal.
In the decathlon, Thorpe was similarly dominant. He finished in the top four in all 10 events and won the 110 meter hurdles, high jump and shot put. His final total of 8412.955 bested second place finisher Gosta Holmer of Sweden by an insane 688.46 points. All-in-all, Thorpe won eight of the 15 individual events in the pentathlon and decathlon combined.
Thorpe also competed in the high jump and long jump at the 1912 Olympics and finished fourth and seventh respectively.
Thorpe returned to the United States as a hero and received a ticker tape parade on Broadway in New York City. Unfortunately, in 1913 the International Olympics Committee stripped Thorpe of his gold medals when it came to light that he had played in a professional baseball league in 1909 and 1910. Most college players at the time spent their summers playing professionally under assumed names. Thorpe used his real name.
In 1982, the IOC overturned its decision because the protest of Thorpe’s eligibility had not been brought to the organization’s attention within the 30 days of the Olympics he participated in, as was required by the rules in 1912. It reinstated Thorpe’s gold medals, while also leaving in place the athletes it had elevated as a result of his disqualification. Therefore, in the official record, the decathlon and pentathlon from 1912 both have two gold medalists listed.
Thorpe went on to play football, baseball and basketball professionally. He spent 14 years in football and was named to the NFL’s first-team All-Pro squad in 1923. He was also a member of the NFL’s 1920s All-Decade team. Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 as part of the 17-member charter class. Additionally, he played six seasons in Major League Baseball for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves before leaving the sport in 1919.
After retiring as a professional athlete, Thorpe struggled to find work though the Great Depression. He never truly found another career, and was broke by the early 1950s thanks largely to people taking advantage of his charitable nature. Sadly he became an alcoholic late in life and never was able to find consistent work.
Thorpe died on March 28, 1953 of heart failure. He was 65 years old and widely considered the greatest American athlete of all-time when he passed away.