Wednesday, July 7, 2010

July 7, 1912: Thanks, King

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Debuting at the 1912 Olympics were a pair of multi-event competitions designed to reward the best all-around athlete of the games. They were the pentathlon, which had been featured at the 1906 Olympics but were revived under a different format for these games, and the decathlon, making its Olympic debut.

These two events seemed perfect for someone like Jim Thorpe. In his amateur days, Thorpe had proven to be a versatile athlete, starring in baseball, football, and multiple track-and-field events. In college, Thorpe was often the only competitor for the Carlisle Indian School track team, so he had experience in many different track and field disciplines. He easily qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in both the pentathlon and the decathlon, as well as in the individual long jump and high jump competitions.

Thorpe's first day of competition at the 1912 Olympics was on July 7, when the pentathlon was held. He dominated the event, winning the long jump, discus throw, 200-meter dash and 1,500-meter run and placing third in the javelin, an event he had never tried before 1912. Later that day, as if the gold medal in the pentathlon wasn't enough of a day's work, he qualified for the high-jump final, eventually finishing fifth.

Later in the Olympics, after a seventh-place finish in the long jump, Thorpe competed in the decathlon, a 10-event competition making its Olympic debut. The event featured the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter run, 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500-meter run. Again, Thorpe dominated the event, finishing in the top four in all 10 events and winning four of them. He finished with a score that would remain as the world record for 15 years.

As was the custom of the time, all medals earned at the Olympics were presented at the closing ceremonies. At those, Swedish King Gustav presented the medals to Thorpe, then said "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." That statement was the beginning of a tradition where the Olympic champion in the decathlon is given the honorary title of "Greatest Athlete in the World." But it's Thorpe's response that made the exchange memorable. After being honored by King Gustav, Thorpe's responded, "Thanks, King."

A few years later, it was revealed that Thorpe had played a few games of semi-pro baseball before going to the Olympics. This was a common practice among college athletes at the time; Thorpe's only real mistake was not playing the games under an alias, as was the common practice. The small payment he received for playing those games cost him his amateur status, and the International Olympic Committee stripped him of the medals he won at the 1912 Olympics; the medals weren't restored to him until 1983, long after he had died.

Thorpe continued to make a name for himself in sports after those Olympics. He spent time playing for the New York Giants in the National League, but left baseball after he couldn't hit a curveball. He later played in the NFL, playing for six teams in the 1920s, and also spent time on a barnstorming basketball team. But it's the 1912 Olympics for which he will always be remembered, for the time a King named him the greatest athlete in the world.

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