Sunday, January 06, 2008

An American Olympian

The 1912 Olympics were held in Stockholm, Sweden. It was the Jim Thorpe Olympics.

Thorpe may be the most amazing athlete of all time. Although this post really is not about him, I can’t resist writing just a little bit about him, as he was an inspiration when I was young (me and 50 million men in my generation). Thorpe was born in 1888 of the Sac and Fox Indian tribe. His Indian name, which I only know because I looked it up, was Wa-Tho-Huk (“Shining Path”). His official name was Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe.

He was never really involved in sports until he was at Carlisle Indian Industrial College in Pennsylvania. The story goes that he was passing by the high jumpers and asked if he could try. He beat them all. Although he started out with track and field events, he mainly considered himself a football player and eventually led Carlisle to the National Championship in 1912 under the legendary coach, Pop Warner. I cannot emphasize what an achievement that was for the little Indian school, competing with such powerhouses at the time (certainly not now) as Harvard and West Point. It was as if your local community college beat Notre Dame or Ohio State University to win the Rose Bowl today.

As amazing an achievement as that was for Thorpe and the school, it paled in comparison to his Olympic victory that same year, for which he received everlasting fame. Competing in the five event pentathlon and the ten event decathlon, he won both on the same day.

Both are combinations of track and field events. He won four of the five pentathlon events, only finishing third in the javelin, which he had just taken up.

He set a record in the decathlon that lasted some twenty years. In ten events he finished not less than fourth, winning four. As is well known, Thorpe, who died in poverty, had his medals stripped when it was learned that he had briefly played professional baseball (for a couple a dollars a game) prior to the Olympics, which were supposedly for amateurs only at that time; in fact, that was true until recently. Posthumously, the medals were returned to him and there is actually a national holiday for him on his birthday.

He has been ranked the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century and third for the century. As great as Babe Ruth (#1) and Michael Jordan (#2) were, no athlete was even remotely as versatile as Thorpe, who went on to play professional baseball with the New York Giants and other teams, was a huge professional football star with the Canton Bulldogs, where he won three championships, as well as being the first president of the league that eventually became the NFL. It was also recently learned by Thorpe researchers that he barnstormed with an all Indian professional basketball team in the ‘20s. When Michael Jordan tried to play one other sport, baseball, he couldn’t get out of the minor leagues.

Thorpe was the ultimate athlete, but like I said, this post isn’t about him. Nor is it about speedster Ralph Craig who won the 100 and 200 meter events that year or the amazing Hannes Kolehmainen (Finland) who won gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter and cross-country events, plus a silver medal with his team in a cross-country relay (then eight years later the Olympic marathon). Nor is it about Ted Meredith, selected while a high school student, who won the 800 meters and another gold in the 4 x 400 meter relay.

It’s about an American competitor in what is known as the modern pentathlon (a different event from the track and field pentathlon that Thorpe won). In this five event competition, the athlete, then always a military man, swam (300 meters), rode a horse (5,000 meter steeplechase), shot a pistol (25 meters), fenced and, for a finale, ran a 4,000 meters cross country course. Its interesting that Thorpe was disqualified for playing a few baseball games as a professional in a different sport for a pittance, yet all the modern pentathletes were not only professionals in their actual event, but were required to be so.

The modern pentathlon was invented by the Baron de Coubertain, also the founder of the modern Olympic Games, who conceived of the sport as a fantasy mission an officer would undergo wherein he would have to ride a horse, fight duels with a pistol and a sword, swim a river and then run cross country. There is no other Olympic sport based upon a fantasy.

The host team, Sweden, dominated the event in 1912, which was the year the modern pentathlon was first held. In fact, they won all three medals, as well as fourth, sixth and seventh places that summer. Although Sweden is not a Summer Olympics power now, it was then, beating the U.S. out for first place overall that year, 65 medals to 63. Because of its victories in 1912, Sweden is today tied with Hungary for most Olympic medals in the modern pentathlon ever.

Our American hero came from a wealthy family with a long military tradition. After graduation he was stationed at prestigious Fort Myers in Washington D.C., where his horsemanship won him the friendship of the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson.

He had no thought of participating in the Olympics but, given his skills, was really the only choice. He was an excellent horseback rider and fencer, an expert rifleman, a long distance swimmer (which he hated) and a record holding hurdler at West Point. Yet, he was appointed to the team only about two months before the games, and although in good shape, had not been running or swimming for quite a long time. He was actually not a natural athlete and had to train like a maniac to prepare himself.

Our hero was the only American who competed in the event, against twelve host Swedish officers (among whom he became a virtual mascot, no doubt by his natural feisty competitiveness) as well as officers from many nations.

The competition started with pistol shooting. Most of the competitors used a .22 but we are told that our hero thought the heavier .38 caliber was more suitable. Unfortunately, it also made a bigger hole. Supposedly (I say that because the story is always related in a fashion that makes it uncertain whether or not it is true) one of his bullets could not be accounted for. His friends, the Swedes, argued on his behalf that it must have passed through one of the previous holes he made (sounds a little too much like the Robin Hood story to be true). But, as the bullet could not be found it was marked as a miss and he finished twenty-first of forty three combatants. Arguably, his missing the target entirely did not seem likely as he had nearly a perfect score in the practice round the day before. Yet, it probably was true, as he did not miss the target just once, but twice. More likely, he did not perform well because he had barely slept the night before. He was already in a hole and seemingly without any chance of a strong finish.

The next day, the 38 remaining contestants swam and he did much better, finishing sixth. He had given it everything he had and was too tired to even leave the pool under his own power. You don’t really see that. In fact, it was a remarkable performance. The Swedes had trained for nearly three quarters of a year. His only training for the event was in a makeshift pool on the deck of the ship to Europe with a rope tied around his waist for resistance. He was now tied for eleventh place.

Fencing occupied the next two days, as each man had to duel each other twenty eight remaining combatants. Here, against the odds, he excelled. Although never having had the type of expert instruction the European officers underwent, the American defeated twenty of his twenty nine opponents, including gave the winner his only defeat. He was now in eighth place. His style was straight ahead and frenetic, foretelling his later exploits.

The second to last event was the steeplechase, and again he excelled. He had a perfect score (as did two Swedes) and finished third based on time. He was in sixth place now. Everyone ahead of him was Swedish.

The last event was the 4,000 meter cross-country race. If not for the poor shooting marks (which should have been his best event after the steeplechase) he almost certainly would have medaled. Pacing oneself was not a well known tactic at the time. It was not suitable for his personality either. Today, it may seem strange that he was legally given a shot of opium before the event, which may or may not have helped. He ran as hard as he could without concern for finishing or his health.

Yet, the passionate American officer entered the arena first followed by a Swede. But he had almost literally run himself to death. He slowed and eventually walked the last 50 meters, finishing third. When he crossed the finish line, he keeled over. So did three others, one of whom died.

Our hero believes he had been unconscious for several hours. He was given more opium, which was not a very good idea, but he managed to live in spite of it. Good thing for America.

He finished fifth overall. With little time to train and without enjoying the home field advantage, the American’s achievement was an incredible feat of determination. Keep in mind that except for our hero’s fifth place, the Swedes won the first seven positions, eight of the first ten and nine of the first fourteen.

Jim Thorpe came home to public acclaim. Yet today, despite his fame, he is probably not the most famous American who competed in Stockholm that summer. That honor probably goes to that highly aggressive, pearl handle pistol toting, poor spelling, loud swearing, subordinate slapping, U.S. Army General, George S. Patton – America’s first Olympic pentathlete. He would fight in World War II the same way he competed in the Olympics. All out, with little thought of the consequences or sacrifice, and leaving nothing in reserve when the fighting was done.

Not something you learned about in the movie, is it?

1 comment:

  1. You told the story exceptionally well. I had no idea who it was. One of your most entertaining blogs, good sir.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .