Jim Thorpe: Biography & Olympic Medals

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

Jim Thorpe was an American athlete during the early 20th century, who many considered to be the greatest in the world. He won Olympic medals and played professional baseball and football.

Development of an Athlete

Picture how dominant Michael Jordan was in the NBA. Now think about Michael Phelps in the swimming pool. Usain Bolt on the track. Tom Brady in the NFL. Now try to imagine if one person possessed the athletic talent and dominance of all of these athletes. In the early 20th century, Jim Thorpe was just such an athlete.

Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe

Born in Oklahoma in 1887, Thorpe was a descendant of a Sauk and Fox Indian chief who was known to be a great warrior and athlete. As a teenager, he moved to Pennsylvania to attend the Carlisle Indian School, which was a boarding school structured around assimilating Indian children to European-American culture (which was assumed necessary at the time). At the Carlisle Indian School, Thorpe learned a number of trades and he also started playing football, (under legendary coach 'Pop' Warner), baseball, lacrosse, hockey, and track. For three years in a row, Thorpe was named a football All-American.

1912 Olympics

As a natural athlete, Jim Thorpe qualified for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. He competed in the pentathalon, which includes the long jump, javelin, 200 meters, discus, and 1500 meters. The only event he did not win on the way to the gold medal was the javelin throw, in which he finished 3rd. Thorpe also won the gold medal in the decathalon, which includes the 100 meters, long jump, high jump, shot put, 400 meters, discus, 110 meter hurdles, pole vault, javelin, and 1500 meters. His performance in both events led Sweden's King Gustaf V to call him the greatest athlete in the world.

Greatest Athlete

Unfortunately, not long after Thorpe returned home to great fanfare, it was found that he had not been eligible to compete. In the years before the Olympics, he had played a couple games of minor league baseball, for which he had been paid. Because the Olympics are an amateur competition, (in spite of recent inclusion of professional athletes) Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals and removed from the record books. (Thorpe's medals were returned to him in 1982, and his name was re-entered in the record books.)

Professional Career

The Olympics scandal did not deter Thorpe from continuing his athletic career upon his return home. He played five seasons of baseball for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves. But his biggest impact was as a football player during the sport's professional origins.

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