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Thorpe becomes 1st Olympic star

Dubbed the world's greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe wins the pentathlon and decathlon at Stockholm.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 1999

Good soldier, good athlete. At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Jim Thorpe was the best of both.

International enthusiasm for the Modern Olympics was waning. Previous Games had been plagued by political strife and financial problems. But the showing by Thorpe, the Games' first individual star, and the enthusiasm displayed by the King of Sweden, helped galvanize international interest.

The pentathlon was introduced at the Stockholm Games and was designed to be similar to what a soldier might employ while delivering a message to an officer -- a 10-meter pistol shoot; one-touch fencing tournament (using epees); 400-meter swim; equestrian (athletes riding unfamiliar horses on a course with a dozen 4-meter hurdles that had to be cleared in about 90 seconds); and a 21/2-mile run.

On July 7, Thorpe got the gold. He was only getting started. The decathlon is a two-day affair. On Day1: 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters; Day2: 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, 1,500 meters.

Of the 15 events in these two tests of endurance, Thorpe won eight.

Thorpe's world-record performance, which climaxed on July15 with a decathlon gold medal, came with royalty from Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Greece, Italy and, of course, Sweden in attendance. Thorpe's 8,412 points would have beaten Bill Toomey's gold-medal total in 1968 and tied Antonio Penalver of Spain for the silver medal in 1992.

So impressed was Sweden's King Gustav V that he told the Sac and Fox Indian: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."

Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King" -- and returned home to lead his Carlisle Indian School team to the mythical national collegiate championship.

In 1913, Thorpe began a six-year career in the only sport in which he would be mediocre, major-league baseball, batting .252 for the Giants, Reds and Braves. In pro football, he led the Canton Bulldogs to unofficial world championships in 1916, '17 and '19.

He was still with them when the American Professional Football Association, a forerunner of the NFL, was born in 1920. He was named that league's president. He played football until 1928.

The king's pronouncement has stuck; the winner of the decathlon is hailed as the world's greatest athlete. Thorpe, whose Indian name, Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to "Bright Path," enjoyed that world's-greatest distinction for only one year. In 1913, when it was discovered he had played sandlot baseball for $25 a game before the Olympics, he was stripped of his medals.

One of the competitors Thorpe beat twice was Avery Brundage, sixth in the pentathlon and a non-finisher in the decathlon. Brundage became president of the International Olympic Committee in 1952. He could have returned the medals to Thorpe. He didn't.

Thorpe died in 1953. It was not until 1982, a decade after Brundage left the IOC presidency, that Thorpe's name was restored to the Olympic record book.

-- Information from 100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History by Bud Greenspan (General Publishing) was used in this report.

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