Best All Time Track and Field Athlete

If versatility is the hallmark of the best ever track and field athlete, then Jim Thorpe deserves the title of "Best All Time Track & Field Athlete." Thorpe’s performance at the 1912 Olympics was stunning. He won the gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. That would be the highlight of a great career but Thorpe’s achievements weren’t just great. These victories were on top of his work as a professional football and baseball player. His skill at most sports was legendary.

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics.
Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics. Thanks to for the picture.

Thorpe’s early years were difficult. He was born in Indian Territory and his ethnic background was at least part Native American. Thorpe had a twin brother who died at age nine. He went to college at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School where he met Coach “Pop” Warner. He played many sports there including football. He won several awards for his football skills.

The 1912 Olympics were held in Stockholm, Sweden. Of the ten decathlon events, Thorpe scored in the top four of each one. His record was untouched for twenty years. He also participated in the pentathlon and secured his place in history as arguably the top track and field athlete ever.

Jim Thorpe, American Olympic Athlete, 1930s
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Controversy followed the Olympics as it was discovered that Thorpe had played baseball for money before the Olympics. His medals were taken away and they said he was a professional and not an amateur. Some have said that bias against his Native American heritage played a role in having the medals taken away.

Jim Thorpe in Carlisle Indian Industrial School uniform.
Jim Thorpe, Native American athlete in uniform of Carlisle Indian School, about 1909. Thanks to for the picture.

Thorpe went on to play for many great baseball and football teams. During the Great Depression he found it hard to find work and to support his family. He was also an alcoholic. In 1951, Burt Lancaster starred as Thorpe in a move about his life called “Jim Thorpe, All American.” Thorpe suffered from lip cancer and died from his third heart attack in 1953. His story didn’t end there. After several attempts over the years, Thorpe’s status as an amateur was affirmed and he was named co-gold-medalist in 1982 for his wins at the Olympics in 1912.

It was a sad end for someone who had so much athletic talent and whose feats were an inspiration to other athletes. Thorpe’s natural talent was amazing and he used it to take part in all kinds of sports including lacrosse and ballroom dancing. His speed and coordination was a one-in-a-million combination and it’s no wonder so many think of him as the best all time track and field athlete.

Thorpe posing in his football uniform.
Thorpe posing in his football uniform in the late 1910s or early 1920s. Thanks to Jheijmans on for the picture.

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