It’s the 1912 summer Olympics in Stockholm. Jim Thorpe, a Native American from Oklahoma, represents the U.S. in four track and field events, the most important of which is the decathlon. The decathlon, a set of ten events made up of sprints, jumps, throws, hurdles, vaults, and a distance run, determines the greatest athlete in the world.
Sport has always been an important part of Jim’s life. He swam and rode horses by age three. And in his teen years, Jim was the star football player of his small college for Native Americans. He led them to a National Championship twice.
“I was never content unless I was trying my skill in some game against my fellow playmates or testing my endurance and wits against some member of the animal kingdom,” he said.
His talent for sport extended well beyond the football field. He competed in more than twenty sports, including figure skating, lacrosse, handball, tennis, and boxing. He even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. This diversity made the decathlon a perfect event for him.
The decathlon started well for Jim. He developed a nice lead after the first day. Then on the morning of day two, as Jim prepped for competition, he noticed that his track shoes were missing, and to this day, they are presumed to have been stolen.
Getting a pair of track shoes wasn’t easy. There wasn’t a store one could walk into and purchase shoes. Track shoes were custom made. So he and his track coach went looking for a discarded pair. His coach found a right shoe and a left one. They were different styles, different sizes, but this was the best option given time constraints. One shoe fit fine, the other was too big. So Jim put on two pairs of socks to fit into the big shoe.
Jim came in first place wearing these track shoes. And he didn’t just win; he dominated, winning by a margin of about 700 points. His margin of victory has only been surpassed one time to date.
As the legend goes, upon receiving his gold medal from King Gustav of Sweden, the King said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Jim, humble as always, reportedly replied, “Thanks, King.”
Jim returned home to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York. He was a hero and officially the greatest athlete in the world.