2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Friday, March 16, 2012

What's With Jim Thorpe, PA, Anyway?

Jim Thorpe, PA

     It's complicated. Jim Thorpe was never in this pretty little gateway-to-the Poconos town while he was actually alive from 1887 to 1953. He -- or his body --didn't get there until he was dead and had been dead for eleven months. And he didn't get buried there officially until three years after that, on Memorial Day, May 30, 1957.
     You can read the full story of this bizarre Life After Death in my new biography of Thorpe, Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe
     However, since the Knopf hardcover was published in October 2012, a whole new Thorpe controversy has erupted. The two surviving sons of Thorpe's original eight children have brought a federal lawsuit against the town of Jim Thorpe under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to have their father's remains exhumed and brought back to Oklahoma, where he was born and where, they say, he wanted to be buried. It was the Thorpe widow who cooked up the deal with the town, not them.
     Could be big. If the Thorpe sons, Bill and Dick, win this thing, it will be known as the Thorpe Case, an important legal precedent for NAGPRA and American Indian culture in general. Personally, as Thorpe's biographer, I can't think of a better legacy, a better end to the story of his life. The town faithfully honored their side of what was essentially a contract for a human body in 1953, but times and attitudes have changed in half a century. 
     Meanwhile, for the latest and thorough update on the case, read Neely Tucker's "Battle over athlete Jim Thorpe's burial site continues," the cover story of this Sunday's Washington Post magazine.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Why read a biography of Jim Thorpe now? Bunch of reasons, but let's start with a few cued to 2012.
     This year is the centennial of the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm when Thorpe, the American Indian out of nowhere, won gold medals in the pentathlon AND the decathlon. No other Olympian has ever done that in these multi-sport events made up of elemental feats that have been the foundation of all athletics since the ancient Greeks. Thorpe also won both by huge margins. Nobody would match them, either. Thorpe's Olympic time in the decathlon 1,500-meter race would hold until 1972. That's 60 years. Incredible. 
      However, Thorpe's Olympic time and distance records are not official. They were stricken from the record in 1913 when it was revealed that he had played minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. As doping is now, professionalism -- taking money for playing sports -- was the threshold issue back then, especially for the Olympics. Amateurism was pretty much bogus, but it ruled the day (read Native American Son to learn more). The Thorpe affair was the mother of all sports scandals, still rated at the top by the 2011 WORLD ALMANAC.
     Thorpe's records were never put back. Oh, yes, there was a sort of posthumous  "reinstatement" by the IOC in 1982. The supposed happy ending. Thorpe was re-entered by the IOC as a "competitor" in the 1912 Games and listed as a co-gold medal winner with the original second-place athletes who had been promoted to first place when Thorpe was erased. Duplicate medals were cast from the original mold and given to his children. But the "record" was not changed. 
     Result: two "official" gold medal winners of both complex, multi-sport events, an absurdity. Thorpe's individual performances in each event were kept off the record probably because if they were reinstated, the co-winner status would look even more bizarre. Sports Illustrated called the whole mess the ultimate asterisk in sports. The first international celebrity athlete, the first Olympic super-star, remains today, a century later, a phantom contender, there but not there. 
   Thorpe's demotion in 1913 reverberated around the world for months, years and decades. He was seen by just about everybody except the AAU and the IOC as the outsider made scapegoat to an elitist and exclusionary ideal.       
     But the Swedes had shown the world how to put on a proper Olympiad when the whole idea of an international multi-sports event was new. The four Olympiads prior to Stockholm had ranged from rudimentary to disastrous. It was by no means certain that this movement begun by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 would survive (the 1916 Games were supposed to take place in Berlin). Without the beautifully organized and successful Stockholm Games 100 years ago, we might not be looking forward to London this summer. 
     Equally important to the survival of the modern Olympic movement in 1912 was Jim Thorpe. He glamorized the Games. He thrilled the world with a series of athletic performances that set a standard sports fans would anticipate every four years (except during World Wars) since. 
     2012 twist: Thorpe did those 15 events in Stockholm without the aid of any enhancement drug or even the level of training his competitors enjoyed. The machine of his own body, aided by his ability to observe and then mimic the best athletes around him, was enough. More than enough.