The American Jim Thorpe is one of the greatest Olympians of all time. At the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, he won both the athletics pentathlon and the decathlon by unprecedented margins.
Born into poverty in a Native American community, Thorpe was a brilliant all-round athlete who excelled in every sport he turned his hand to. For his exploits in Stockholm, he received not only gold medals but also extravagant prizes: the Russian tsar donated a silver Viking ship embedded with jewels, while King Gustav V presented Thorpe with a large bust of King Charles XII of Sweden. On his return home, Thorpe was honoured with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway and for a short while he was the world’s most celebrated sportsman. Six months later, however, the fairy tale came to an abrupt halt when it emerged that before the Olympics he had been paid a modest $25 a week to play minor-league baseball, thus breaching the Olympics’ strict code of amateurism. The devastated Thorpe was forced to return the medals and prizes and was struck from the results records.
All-round sporting genius that he was, he bounced back and went on to play professional baseball and American football; however, Olympic disqualification weighed heavy on Thorpe. Full vindication would have to wait for another 110 years. In the summer of 2022, the International Olympic Committee announced that Jim Thorpe had been reinstated as the winner of the athletics pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 games, something that the vast majority in the world of sports had always considered self-evident.
On placing the laurel wreath on Thorpe’s head in 1912, King Gustav V declared, ”You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world”, to which Thorpe replied, “Thanks, King”.