Thorpe to Eaton: Century of World’s Greatest Athletes
When King Gustav V of Sweden presented Jim Thorpe with the gold medal for winning the decathlon during the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, his majesty said, “You, sir, are the world’s greatest athlete.”
Ever since that day in July 100 years ago, each Olympic decathlon winner has been considered “the world’s greatest athlete.”
Also, anyone who sets a scoring record in a decathlon competition will be known as “the world’s greatest athlete” for quite a while.
Following this tradition, the new “world’s greatest athlete” is Ashton Eaton, a 6-foot 1-inch, 185- pound native of Portland, Ore. This superb athlete set a world record of 9,039 points eight days ago while winning the decathlon at the U.S. Olympic Trials during two rainy and chilly days on his “home track” on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. This broke the previous world mark by 11 points.
Eaton is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he established himself as an international decathlete to be reckoned with some years ago. He is now the heavy favorite to win the Olympic gold medal in London when the decathlon is contested, August 8 and 9.
Thorpe, a Native American from Oklahoma’s Sac and Fox nation, was a 24-year-old student at the Carlisle, Pa., Indian School in 1912 when he won the first decathlon ever held at an Olympic Games. Eaton is also 24 years old.
Just six days before Thorpe began the arduous decathlon competition in Stockholm, he won the ancient pentathlon of five events on Sunday, July 7, 1912. The ancient pentathlon, a one-day event that consisted of the long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter run, discus throw and 1,500-meter run, is no longer contested in Olympic Games.
The decathlon was a three-day event in the 1912 Olympics so that Thorpe and others competed in the 100-meter run, long jump and shot put on Saturday, July 13, followed on Sunday by the high jump, 400- meter run, discus throw and 110- meter hurdles. They finished on Monday, July 15, with the pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500-meter run.
No wonder King Gustav declared Thorpe to be the world’s greatest. After all, the Native American hero of that day had just bested the top athletes in the world in 15 specific track and field events over an eight-day period and done so by a very wide margin. Since the decathlon was a new Olympic event unknown in the United States, Thorpe was competing in the decathlon for the very first time when he won the gold medal in Stockholm. Not too shabby for a rookie.
There were no Olympic Games in 1916 due to World War I. The Olympics resumed in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium, where the decathlon was cut to a two-day event with five disciplines contested each day. It has been that way ever since. But as was the case in 1912 and again in 1920, the decathlon always concludes with the 1,500-meter run.
It was during that rainy and cold early evening eight days ago that Ashton Eaton ran his heart out to finish the 1,500 meter in a good enough time to earn the necessary points for a new world record. His fellow competitors, who make up the unique, close fellowship of decathletes, made way for Eaton on the final lap so that he did not hav to weave around anyone in order to get to the finish line as soon as he could.
The ghost of King Gustav V may have looked down upon Ashton Eaton and said, “You, sir, are now the world’s greatest athlete.”
Thorpe may actually have been just that —the world’s greatest. After all, he went on to play for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves in Major League Baseball, plus the Massillon Tigers and the Canton Bulldogs in professional football. He became the first president of the National Football League while still a player with the Bulldogs in the early 1920’s.
But a year after his heroic performances in Stockholm, Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals by the International Olympic Committee and declared to have been a professional athlete during the 1912 Olympics.
In those days Olympians were supposed to be amateurs. American newspapers broke stories in 1913 that Thorpe had played baseball professionally. He admitted receiving $2 per game as a member of the Rocky Mount team of the Eastern Carolina League in the summers of 1909 and 1910. He asked forgiveness from the American Amateur Athletic Union and the International Olympic Committee.
There was no forgiveness in the cold hearts of those hypocrites who knew top athletes received huge amounts of expense money in order to survive.
At the behest of the AAU, those Olympic officials took Thorpe’s gold medals away and named Hugo Wieslander of Sweden winner of the 1912 Olympic decathlon.
Thorpe was never able to regain his gold medals during his lifetime. He died at age 64 in 1953. But in 1982 the International Olympic Committee reinstated Thorpe as a gold medalist in both the decathlon and ancient pentathlon of the 1912 Olympics. However, these stuffy old codgers refused to take the gold medal away from Hugo Wieslander, so that according to them Thorpe and Wieslander are co-winners of the decathlon gold for the 1912 decathlon. Not according to good old King Gustav V.
Racism a Factor?
Many people have claimed that horrible American racism was a major factor in the attack on Thorpe a century ago. That could be possible, since it was American newspapers that exposed Thorpe’s “professionalism” for $2 a game. And it was the American AAU that asked the International Olympic Committee to strip Thorpe of his gold medals. And racism was a horrid part of life in the United States 100 years ago, just as it is today.
Thorpe’s parents were both considered of mixed races, as each was half Caucasian and half Native American. Jim was raised as a Native American in an Oklahoma tribe.
Hopefully, Ashton Eaton, who is also an American of mixed race, will not have to face such idiocy during his lifetime.
In addition, the Olympic charter was changed in 1986 to permit professional athletes to compete in that quadrennial showcase of sports. No longer can any racists punish a worthy athlete just because he took $2to play a game many years ago.
Ashton Eaton appears headed to follow in the running, jumping and throwing footsteps of Jim Thorpe and others such as Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, Bruce Jenner and Dan O’Brien, just a few of the Americans who have won the Olympic decathlon over the past century.
But no one will top Thorpe’s reply to King Gustav V when he called the American “the world’s greatest athlete.” Our hero simply said, “Thanks, King.”
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times.
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