Monday 22 January 2018

Olympic hero Thorpe victim of prolonged begrudgery

Sean Diffley

ALMOST a century after Jim Thorpe demonstrated in the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 that he was the greatest all-round athlete of all time, his family are striving to have him buried in the family plot in Oklahoma.

It's a strange tale. When he died in 1953, his wife sold the burial rights to a small coal town in Pennsylvania which was known as Mauch Chunk, where the citizens renamed their town as 'Jim Thorpe' in a bid to inspire an influx of tourists.

Thorpe, a member of the Red Indian tribe of the Sac and Fox was a son of a "part Irishman" and a mother from the Potawatomie and Kickapoo tribe.

One of his five sons, now 73 and a former chief of the Sac and Fox, is intent on reburying his father in a grave just a mile from where Jim Thorpe was born.

But if this burial saga is a strange tale, his sporting life was even stranger, as this innocent, shy Indian, proved a hero and then ran foul of Olympic bureaucracy.

Thorpe was first spotted as an athletic genius when at the Indian-run school of Carlisle. He was watching some of his fellow pupils failing to clear 5' 9" in the high jump, but in his ordinary clothes and wearing heavy shoes he approached the pit and easily cleared the height and other heights as the bar was raised.

He became a prominent college footballer with Carlisle, starring for his team when they beat Harvard, no less, and the Army.

At college he demonstrated his all-round abilities with 11 varsity letters in 11 different sports. So, he was chosen to represent the USA in the 1912 Olympics.

Thorpe won the pentathlon (since a discontinued event), being first in four of the five events and only third in the javelin, a discipline he only made acquaintance with a few weeks prior to the Games.

Then he finished fourth in the high jump and easily walked away with the decathlon which on that occasion was a three-day event.

Czar Nicholas presented Thorpe with a jewel-encrusted chalice and King Gustave of Sweden gifted him a bronze statuette and told him: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."

All that was followed with a ticker-tape reception down Broadway.

But then he was reported for having earned $25 a week playing in a minor baseball event and, immediately, he was suspended and the Olympic movement demanded his medals and trophies back.

Even though legal professionalism had become the norm in sport -- even in the Olympics -- and even though public opinion was totally pro-Thorpe, it wasn't until 1983 -- 71 years later -- that the International Olympic Council returned the medals to the Thorpe family.

There is a theory that Avery Brundage, the billionaire head of the IOC until 1972 and who had finished well down the field in the pentathlon and decathlon to Thorpe, was always opposed to the return of the medals.

Looks like a world Olympic record of prolonged begrudgery, doesn't it?

Irish Independent

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