In the warm embrace of the summer of 1912, the vibrant city of Stockholm, Sweden was abuzz with excitement. The finest athletes from around the world were gathered there for the fifth modern Olympic Games. Among them, representing the United States, was Jim Thorpe. He was set to compete in a few events, including the decathlon, a grueling event that was made up of ten competitions including sprints, jumps, throws, hurdles, vaults, and a distance run. It was a true test of versatility. The winner would be given the title of world’s greatest athlete.
Jim’s journey to the 1912 Olympics was part of a life-long love for sports. Born in 1887 in Prague, Indian Territory, in what is today Oklahoma, he was raised in a mixed ancestry family that would bring him up with the traditions of the Sac and Fox Native American tribe. By age three, Jim was swimming and riding horses. As he grew older, Jim became actively involved in sports competition, becoming the star football player of his small college for Native Americans. He led them to a National Championship twice. The coach there described Jim as “the most remarkable physical machine in the annals of athletics.”
Jim’s 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. “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 would say. This diversity made the decathlon a perfect event for him.
The decathlon at the 1912 Olympics 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. To this day, the shoes are presumed to have been stolen.
Getting a pair of track shoes wasn’t easy. Unlike today, where sports equipment can be readily purchased from retail outlets, track shoes in 1912 were custom-made to suit the individual specifications of each athlete. There wasn’t a store one could walk into and purchase a pair. 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. His performance was so astounding that those 1912 Olympic games became known as the “Jim Thorpe Olympics.”
As legend goes, upon receiving his Olympic 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 N.Y. His name was in the papers, the pride of a nation. He was an Olympic champion and the greatest athlete in the world.
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- Story updated on December 21, 2023.
“Jim Thorpe wins gold at 1912 Olympics” sources
- Crawford, Bill. All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe. Hoboken, N.J. : John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
- “Jim Thorpe.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Thorpe
- Photograph of Jim taken at the 1912 Olympics – Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Foundation, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jim_Thorpe,_1912_Summer_Olympics.jpg
“Jim Thorpe wins gold at 1912 Olympics.” Published by Historical Snapshots. https://historicalsnaps.com/2017/08/18/jim-thorpe-wins-gold-1912-olympics/