One century ago, there stood a man so marvelous and so unprecedented that his exploits would later become indistinguishable from the fables that blossomed from them.
No television cameras were at the 1912 Olympics to capture the grace and prowess of Oklahoman Jim Thorpe as he competed. There was no footage to disseminate to the masses so they could witness the sheer domination that Thorpe operated under.
Stories spread. People gossiped. The oral legend of Thorpe swelled to the point where the first international celebrity was born.
But does Thorpe still resonate to the 140-character generation of today?
While his name may not be idolized like it once was, Thorpe's greatest of all stories has survived.
When King Gustav V of Sweden awarded Thorpe his gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, he clasped Thorpe's hand and spoke words that would carry a whole century later.
“Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
One hundred years after Thorpe's mastery of the decathlon, the event would see its world record fall to another American.
Ashton Eaton, a 24-year-old marvel from Oregon, knew little of Thorpe when he scored 9,039 points — the new record — at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in June.
It wasn't until he was lauded as the new “world's greatest athlete” that Eaton discovered the story of Thorpe.
“You understand the gravity of what you're doing when you realize it's not all about you, but what someone has done before you,” said Eaton, who will be the odds-on favorite when the decathlon begins in London on Wednesday. “Then, you are able to respect what you're doing.”
What Thorpe accomplished in 1912 took decades to match. Twenty years passed before a decathlete bested his point total, and Bob Mathias, in 1952, is the only decathlete with a higher margin of victory than Thorpe.
A side note often unremembered is Thorpe also qualified in the individual high jump (tied for fourth place) and long jump (seventh), which was remarkable for an athlete that won the 5-event pentathlon and 10-event decathlon all in a two-week span.
Thorpe's performance is immortalized among decathletes.
“You can't really measure his performance because athletes that came later had better equipment and better training and more professional diets and things like that,” leading Olympic historian Bill Mallon said. “You can really only measure on how dominant he was by how he did against athletes of his own era. I'm not sure if anybody was better.”
Few modern athletes ever hear of Thorpe at an early age. They don't grow up wanting to be the next Jim Thorpe. Often, it isn't until they become serious in their training for the decathlon when they come across Thorpe's name.
“Carrying the title is a huge honor, but what you find out when you read about him is the title is just the title,” said Bryan Clay, the gold medalist from the 2008 Beijing Games. “Life goes on after you accept the title. You have a family to take care of and responsibilities that you have to continue to do. While the title is great, and it's a huge honor to have it, it's not completely life-altering.”
Some are afraid Thorpe's relevance is evaporating, being left behind for more modern athletes. Thorpe isn't who this generation considers the world's greatest athlete, rather it's the latest winner, like Clay or Eaton.
“It's just so hard to relate to because it was so long ago,” said Justin Lenhart, director of the Jim Thorpe Museum in Oklahoma City. “I think his story is lost on a lot of the younger generation. Hopefully, the 2012 Olympics, since it's the 100th year anniversary, can remedy that a little bit.”
If the U.S. Olympic Trials were any indicator, Thorpe still remains dear to many in the track and field community. During a ceremony for all past American decathlete gold medalists, Thorpe's only two living sons, 84-year-old Bill Thorpe and 80-year-old Richard Thorpe, represented their father in the parade around the track.
“We were the last ones in the line, and they had signs printed up that read: Jim Thorpe,” Bill recalled. “And we got an ovation that just wouldn't quit. It gave me chills up and down my spine and arms. It was just amazing. That gives you an example of what happens when people hear dad's name.”
One hundred years after Thorpe paved the way for American Indians with his 1912 Olympic performance, former Oklahoman Mary Killman will be one of three natives competing in the London Olympics.
Normally Killman, a 21-year-old born in Ada, doesn't deal with many press inquiries as a synchronized swimmer, but that changed in anticipation of the Olympics. Looking for a connection to Thorpe's centennial anniversary, Killman's Potawatomi heritage was soon identified.
“It's funny, because it used to just be a little blurb on my bio,” Killman said. “Now, it's the story.”
Killman didn't have a traditional Indian upbringing. But she was born in an American Indian hospital and is a card-carrying member of the Potawatomi Nation. She is proud of her ancestry.
“I'm not only representing my country, but I'm representing my sport and my heritage,” Killman said. “That's what athletes do, right? We go to work as hard as we can, and then we represent who we are.”
But Killman is distanced from many of the troubling statistics that face some American Indians.
Indian poverty rates are high. They also struggle with high rates of type 2 diabetes, alcoholism, tuberculosis and suicide, according to the Indian Health Service.
American Indian leaders are turning to sports in search of at least part of the solution. Their campaign revolves around Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation.
“He is like our Michael Jordan,” said Sandra Massey, a Sac and Fox spokeswoman. “He did extraordinary things, and he always retained his heritage. I think for a kid who maybe feels like they don't have a lot of options, something like that can inspire him to do better.”
This past summer, the first Jim Thorpe Games were hosted in Oklahoma City and brought together thousands of American Indian athletes. It didn't take long for Sam McCracken, Nike N7's general manager, to sign on as a sponsor. N7 is McCracken's self-made program, committed to bringing sport specifically to American Indians.
“Ultimately, we just want to get them active,” said McCracken, who is a member of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes. “If something bigger and better comes from that, then that's just a bonus. Whether it's Jim Thorpe or Sam Bradford or Jacoby Ellsbury, if any of those athletes can help inspire, then we deem it a success.”
The importance of increasing availability for American Indian children to continue athletics is apparent.
“As long as you keep kids busy on the field or on the court, they ain't got time to get in trouble,” said Wildcat Jumper, who brought his under-18 softball team from the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida. “It gives them so many other options, instead of doing drugs or getting into trouble.”
Sometimes kids are ill-equipped to transition into life, relapsing into self-destructive tendencies involving alcohol, drugs and crime.
“I don't think the kids that get in trouble have anything to look forward to. They're just bored,” said Erena Billie, a 17-year-old softball player on Jumper's Seminole softball team. “It makes a big difference if you play sports because then you have your mind set on something. You have hope.”
As the inaugural Jim Thorpe Games drew to a close, R. Kelly's song “The World's Greatest” blared over loud speakers to the campers and provided a fitting final ceremony.
I'm that little bit of hope / When my back's against the ropes / I can feel it / I'm the world's greatest
The children sang along with the final line of the chorus, and in that moment, a century removed from his greatness, Jim Thorpe still had an audience, perhaps aspiring to be like him.