by Jim Arvantes

Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist and Best-Selling Author
Discusses The Triumph and Tragedy of the Legendary Jim Thorpe 

Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest and most versatile athletes in history, a rugged but graceful athletic juggernaut who excelled at football, baseball, basketball and numerous other sports, including track and field.

In 1912, Thorpe captured the attention of the world by winning two gold medals – one in the classic pentathlon and the other in the decathlon – during the Olympic Games held in Sweden. In the process, Thorpe became the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal.

But Thorpe is probably best remembered for having his Olympic medals and records cruelly stripped away for allegedly violating the amateur rules and regulations of the Olympic games.

During a Nov. 17th Tuesday Talk at the Cleveland Park Library, two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and best-selling author David Maraniss, called the stripping of Thorpe’s medals and the erasure of Thorpe’s records, “one of the single most unjust acts in Olympic history.”

Maraniss, a Cleveland Park resident and author of the highly acclaimed and best-selling book, Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe, said the International Olympic Committee, IOC, compounded the injustice year after year and decade after decade by refusing to restore Thorpe’s medals and records.

It was not until 2022 – nearly 70 years after Thorpe’s death – that the IOC finally relented and fully restored Thorpe’s medals and records.

But the IOC’s actions came 110 years too late, lamented Maraniss, the best-selling author of two other sports-related biographies, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi, and Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.  

Living with Loss

As the author of Path Lit By Lightning, Maraniss talked about the life and times of Jim Thorpe, voted the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th Century by the Associated Press. 

Maraniss pointed out that Jim Thorpe lived a life of both triumph and tragedy, his life defined by incredible highs and heart-breaking loss. The loss of his Olympic gold medals and records was one in a long litany of profound losses that plagued him.

Thorpe learned about loss early in life. He was born in 1887 along the North Canadian River in the Sac and Fox Nation in what is now Oklahoma. Thorpe was a twin, a fact that most people are unaware of, said Maraniss, an associate editor at the Washington Post, who has also written best-selling biographies of Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Thorpe’s twin brother, Charlie, died at the age of nine at an Indian boarding school.

On the night of Thorpe’s birth, a thunderstorm raged over the North Canadian River and his family gave Thorpe the nickname, ‘Path Lit By Lightning.’ 

During Thorpe’s early years white settlers pushed into the Sac and Fox Nation, “legally” taking thousands of acres of land that belonged to the Native Americans who had lived there for centuries, a land grab that represented the first real loss in Thorpe’s young life.

Maraniss described Thorpe’s father, Hiram, as a “cowboy/Indian ruffian who had five wives and 20 children,” and he sent young Thorpe to three Indian boarding schools. After Thorpe ran away from the first two schools, Hiram sent him more than 1,000 miles away to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., making it difficult, if not impossible, for young Thorpe to find his way back home.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879, served as the federal government’s flagship school for Native Americans, and it took in Indians from all over the country. The motto of the founder was “kill the Indian, save the man” – the overriding goal being assimilation. 

Students were not allowed to speak their native languages or practice their native religions. When they arrived at Carlisle, the Indians had their long hair cut short, and they were forced to wear military uniforms, similar to the uniforms U.S. soldiers wore when fighting and subduing their fathers during the Indian wars out west.

Thorpe and other Carlisle students were forced to work on farms in Pennsylvania and other nearby states, serving as a type of indentured servants. The Carlisle school received money from the federal government as well as the farms, engaging in “double billing,” and operating what Maraniss called a “sham.”

“When Jim Thorpe got there in 1904, he went straight to some of the farms,” Maraniss said.

Incredibly, when Thorpe entered the Carlisle school as a 16-year-old, he stood 5’ 5” and weighed a mere 115 pounds, a far cry from the powerfully-built and magnificent-looking athlete he became. In his prime, Thorpe stood 6’ 1’ and weighed 185 to 200 pounds, depending on the year.

Path to Glory

One day, while working on a farm at the Carlisle school in 1907, Thorpe passed by the school’s athletic field, watching as fellow students struggled to clear a high jump bar of nearly six feet.

Thorpe went over and cleared the bar with ease even though he was wearing heavy work boots and a flannel shirt. The next day he was on the track team, and before long, he was a member of the football team. He quickly became a star in both sports. Within a year, he was an All-American football player. 

As a football player, Thorpe could catch, pass, kick and tackle, making it possible for him to play multiple positions. And he had blinding speed.

“Thorpe ran like a wild horse,” said Maraniss. “It was hard to tackle him.”

With his athletic gifts, Thorpe was a natural for the 1912 U.S. Olympic team, said Maraniss, who illustrated his talk with stories about Thorpe that gave the audience a true measure of his athletic gifts.

During the second day of the Olympic competition, Thorpe lost his shoes, and even though his coach, Pop Warner, found another set of shoes, they were mismatched and different sizes. Warner dug up one shoe from a garbage can.

Thorpe had to wear a thick pair of socks on one foot and regular socks on other to make the shoes fit better. He still managed to win his events for the day – the high jump and the long jump. (The pentathlon is made up of five track and field events while the decathlon is comprised of 10 events).

There is a picture in Path Lit by Lightning of Thorpe wearing the mismatched shoes at the end of the Olympic events as he is about to receive his Olympic medals and trophies.

After his triumph in Sweden, Thorpe and the other U.S. Olympians returned home to “glorious parades in New York and Philadelphia,” according to Maraniss.

In the fall of 1912, Thorpe resumed playing football at Carlisle. (Thorpe, who arrived at the Carlisle school in 1904, ultimately left in 1913. He took two years off from the school between 1904 and 1913.) 

Political Retribution

Maraniss recounted one football game in particular, a 1912 match between Carlisle, the so-called Indians, and West Point, the U.S. Army. The Indians, powered by Thorpe, won the game handily, 27-6.

“Football has always been a violent, brutal sport,” noted Maraniss. “It was ever more so in that era.”

Before the Army game, a West Point running back and linebacker named Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower, a future five-star general and U.S. president, conspired with one of his teammates to knock Thorpe out of the game to increase Army’s chances of winning. 

During the contest, Eisenhower plowed into Thorpe’s chest and at the same time his teammate hit Thorpe in the knees, knocking Thorpe to the ground, unconscious. After about a minute and a half, a groggy Thorpe got up and continued to play. Later in the game, Eisenhower and his teammate tried to hit Thorpe simultaneously again, but Thorpe slipped away, causing the future president and his teammate to collide.

Ike damaged his knee in the collision, forcing him out of the game.   

“Ike never played (football) again,” quipped Maraniss as the audience laughed.

Bush-League Baseball

Maraniss described 1912 as Thorpe’s “golden year” – that was the year Thorpe won his Olympic gold medals and continued to star on the football field, beating Army in that memorable game.

But by early 1913, “things started to fall apart” for Jim Thorpe, said Maraniss. 

In early 1913, a newspaper in Worcester, Mass., reported that Thorpe played semi-pro baseball during the summers of 1909 and 1910 in the Eastern Carolina League in North Carolina. The New York papers picked up the story, creating a scandal that eventually led to the loss of Thorpe’s Olympic medals and records.

In Thorpe’s day and for decades afterward, the IOC forbid professional athletes – athletes who were paid for playing sports—from competing in the Olympic games. But the rules were always nebulous, raising questions about who was truly an amateur and who qualified as a professional.

“Professional amateurism was sort of foisted on the world by wealthy aristocrats in Europe who didn’t need the money to play any sports,” explained Maraniss. 

Thorpe played “Bush-League baseball,” for about a dollar a game, but so did scores of other college athletes who did not lose their amateur status, Maraniss said. This included West Point cadet and football player Eisenhower, who played semi-pro baseball in a Kansas league under the alias Wilson.

The Eastern Carolina League was known as the Pocahontas League because so many of its players competed under the alias John Smith, explained Maraniss, prompting laughter from the audience.

Thorpe played under his own name, which appeared regularly in newspaper box scores throughout North Carolina. Unlike many other college athletes, Thorpe never tried to hide the fact that he played in the Eastern Carolina League.

Maraniss pointed out that the entire Swedish Olympic team in 1912 took a leave of absence with pay from their jobs for six months to train for the Olympics. Future U.S. General George S. Patton was a member of the 1912 U.S. Olympic team, and he competed in a series of modern pentathlon events, which included horse-back riding, fencing and rifle shooting.

“He was being paid by the Army to train for these events at Fort Myers for a couple of years before the Olympics started,” said Maraniss. “Is he a professional or an amateur?”

Maraniss also stressed that Thorpe played semi-pro baseball – a sport that had nothing to do with the Olympic events.

Professional Athlete

After leaving the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1913, Thorpe played professional baseball and football, competing in the professional ranks into his 40s.

He played baseball for the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Braves from 1913 to 1919. During one year with the Braves, he competed with baseball great Ty Cobb for the National League batting title.

Thorpe is better remembered for his professional football career. Thorpe was the first president of the American Football Association, which later became The National Football League, NFL. In 1963, he was inducted into the NFL’s inaugural Hall of Fame class.  

Thorpe coached and played for the Canton Bulldogs, helping them win three championships as their star player in the pre-NFL era. He later served as a player/coach for an NFL traveling team called the Oorang Indians, a team comprised entirely of Native Americans, who struggled on the football field because they had little experience playing the game. 

In one contest, the Oorang Indians played the Milwaukee Badgers and their star player, Paul Robeson, who would later become famous as a singer, a stage and screen actor as well as an African-American political activist.

“If I could have been anywhere to witness one event, it would have been that game,” said Maraniss.

Struggling to Survive

Like many great athletes, Thorpe struggled after his playing days ended. He battled alcoholism and drifted from town to town, living in more than 20 states. He married three times and had eight children. His first child, Jim Jr., died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic.

Thorpe worked at a number of jobs, including bouncer and greeter at bars and restaurants. He also held a job with the Chicago Parks Department, and worked as a coach.

In the 1930s, he ended up in Hollywood, working in westerns with famous Hollywood stars. Westerns were popular back then, and Hollywood studios typically hired white people for Indian parts, putting war paint on them to make them look like Indians.

Thorpe urged Hollywood directors and producers to hire Native Americans to play the parts of Indians, and he became a spokesman for Native Americans in the process.

Valuable Insights

Path Lit By Lightning, like Maraniss’ other books on towering sports figures, transcends the world of sports, pulling in history and sociology and thus providing trenchant insights into our society as a whole.

Vince Lombardi, for example, was more than a brilliant football coach. His life and success on the gridiron became “a symbol of competition and success in American life – what it takes and what it costs,” said Maraniss.

Clemente, the Hall of Fame baseball player, was not just a great baseball player, but he was a true sports hero. He lived and died by the motto, “If you have a chance to help others and fail to do so, you are wasting your time on this earth,” Maraniss explained. 

Clemente died in late December 1972 at the age of 38 when his plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean en-route to Nicaragua to deliver food and medical supplies to earthquake victims in that country. 

By writing about Thorpe, Maraniss was able to illuminate the Native American experience in this country. The story of the Indian boarding schools serves as a main theme of Path Lit by Lightning, the driving force for why Maraniss wanted to write the book.

Overcoming the Odds

Jim Thorpe died in 1953 at the age of 64 while living with his third wife in a trailer home in Lomita, Calif., a part of Los Angeles County. Thorpe died in poverty.

When first researching and writing Path Lit By Lightning, Maraniss thought he would write a tragedy. But as he continued to research and write, Maraniss realized that Thorpe’s life was a story about perseverance against the odds.

“Thorpe struggled with the way society treated him and with this own problems,” said Maraniss. “But he just kept going.”

In many ways, this is the story of many Native Americans. One of the most popular sculptures and prints of early 20th century America is called The End of the Trail, which depicts a drained Native American, wearing a blanket and carrying a spear, slumped over his bent horse.

The message of the depiction is clear – this is a race that is dying and will soon be dead. But it never happened, Maraniss said.

The native people survived, he added. 

To buy Path Lit by Lightning:The Life of Jim Thorpe please go to the follow website: