Jim Thorpe-World's Greatest Athlete by Robert Wheeler Revisted, by Jeff Benjamin


unnamed.jpgJeff Benjamin sent me a note about this book a few months ago. I was checking his story folder and found that I had not posted it yet. A nice review and some strong thoughts on one of our finest athletes of all times.

Jim Thorpe - World's Greatest Athlete by Robert Wheeler Revisited--by Jeff Benjamin
In our sport of Track and Field, it always seems that there is a recurring theme of perceived injustice, and attention is brought to the athlete or athletes who are fighting against this. Steve Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, Kathrine Switzer, and even Nick Symmonds today all seem to have had to fight against a system and rules in which they are entrenched in by the Sport, with the goal of trying to better it according to their own convictions whether others agree or disagree. But what may have been forgotten in the 21st century world was one of perhaps the greatest injustices ever to have befallen an athlete in our, or any, sport during the 20th century; the case and legacy of Jim Thorpe. What is more remarkable is that Robert Wheeler's biography on the great athlete, aptly titled, "Jim Thorpe -World's Greatest Athlete" was published in 1975 and his account of the legendary athlete has not been surpassed since. So, with $20 to spare on Amazon.com, this writer wanted to revisit the Thorpe saga and learn in even greater detail about the man who has been listed by sports experts as either the greatest or one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. One does not walk away from this work disappointed as Wheeler truly and passionately researched his subject not just through records and stories regaled in newspapers throughout the years, but also by succinctly interviewing almost anyone who knew the great Native-American. One of the major themes about the book is that Wheeler also had to disseminate the fact and fiction pertaining to Thorpe's legendary life. As mentioned right on the first page of the book, in a letter sent to Wheeler by Colonel Alexander M. Weyand:
"Some ridiculous stories concerning Thorpe have been published in magazines and books and have been solemnly repeated by reliable writers...I repeat, watch carefully what you write because more lies have been written about Jim Thorpe than about any player in football history."
Everyone agrees that Thorpe did not have an easy early life. As Wheeler recounts, life began for Thorpe in Oklahoma territory in 1888, where he was born into the Sac and Fox tribe. Jim's Native name was "Bright Path." He apparently was also born with pretty good genes, as Wheeler recounts that his father, Hiram Thorpe , "became the greatest athlete on the reservation. Hiram defeated all commers, Indian or white, in contests of strength, speed coordination and endurance." The young Thorpe would also excel on the reservation, but not without experiencing great tragedy, as Thorpe, years later in an interview told how he had a twin brother Charlie who died of pneumonia at the age of eight. Also, while excelling in Sports and academics at Haskell Indian Junior College, Thorpe would learn that his father was shot and lay dying. In a horribly ironic twist, he found out his father would recover, but his mother would succumb to blood poisoning, a tragedy which made Thorpe, according to Wheeler, a "loner".
Eventually the 16 year old Thorpe would wind up at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, a school designed to Americanize the Native American children. It was here that he would link up with Glenn "Pop" Warner, who would guide Thorpe to greatness in football and track and field. Also, Thorpe would play minor league baseball, which would come back to haunt him. Easily making the U. S. Olympic team, Thorpe went to Stockholm to compete in the Decathlon and Pentathlon. To the shock of the Swedes (whose athletes thought they would easily win the medals) Thorpe would win the Pentathlon easily and then go on to demolish the competition, beating the second-place finisher by more than 1400 points. Wheeler writes that Thorpe was so new to some of the events he competed in that he lacked the knowledge and strategies in winning them, particularly the 1500. But it didn't matter. King Gustav handed Thorpe his gold medals and proclaimed , "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe's subsequent reply, "Thanks, King" has only added to the legend.
Thorpe returned to great fame back here in the United States and returned to playing his beloved Football at Carlisle. But 1913 would be the year of his Olympic disqualification, when it was found out (quite by accident, according to Wheeler) that Thorpe's minor league baseball period would constitute "professionalism." Despite the fact that Thorpe was lucky to be compensated just a few dollars for this, Thorpe's gold medals were taken away and given to the 2nd place finishers in those events. According to Wheeler, many major newspapers called this a gross injustice, but IOC President Avery Brundage, who also competed in the 1912 Olympics, re-emphasized what the AAU (The U.S. National Governing body for track and field at the time) told Thorpe in 1913 many years later- "Ignorance is no excuse."
What's interesting about Wheeler's book is that he shows his subject carrying on quite strongly.. Thorpe would go on to play Major Leauge baseball, and be a founding father of the NFL. He also gave of himself in community work, traveling the country to give speeches about sports and the treatment of Native-Americans and help coach teams, both on the local and international level. He also delved in and out of show business and Hollywood throughout the years as well and was honored at various functions and given a standing ovation when introduced at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. He also battled heart issues which eventually took it's toll on this great athlete, who died in 1953.
While Wheeler became Thorpe's greatest proponent in eventually getting him reinstated by the International Olympic Committee in 1983, and his family being given replica gold medals, he quite fairly shows in the latter pages of the book that he was not alone. Congressman, Senators, petition signers all joined this crusade which pretty much began in 1913. Wheeler's last chapter of the book (Retrospect) includes personal tributes by Thorpe from those who knew him. Jack Dempsey, George Halas, his daughter Grace Thorpe (A nationally-recognized environmentalist today)and Burt Lancaster (who portrayed Thorpe in Hollywood's blockbuster film, "Jim Thorpe All-American") all grace these pages with more stuff to be added to the legend.
While it is a very good read and can serve as a primer for those fighting for change against an injustice, Thorpe's story , like many as time goes by, has been revisited in the context of the current day. For example, it's now emphasized that our American Olympic champion was not technically an "American" at all. In 1912 Thorpe was, like many Native Americans with a reservation background, deemed a "Ward of the State" and not a citizen. One also wonders how influential Avery Brundage was in denying Thorpe his medals during those years as USOC and later IOC President. Also in recent years the family controversy surrounding Thorpe's funeral, coffin and burial has just been decided by the United States Supreme Court this past October--
Hindsight is a wonderful quality to have, but at the same time we are always trapped in the times we have lived in. Perhaps some ambitious writer would like to take the mantle up and revisit Thorpe, especially in the context of the attitudes, events and controversy still following him around to this day. But, the standard by which to build upon Thorpe has been set. Robert Wheeler's book is still the bedrock-solid pinnacle book on the great athlete's life which must be adhered to if that future author has any hope for success.

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