An unusual event happened a few days
ago in my
life: My college daughter, Samantha, and I actually had a sit down meal
and conversation. It wistfully reminded me of simpler times from long
ago, when the whole family gathered around the dinner table every
night. Alas, kids grow up, the world gets complicated, and things
change. What once was a daily occurrence never seems to happen any
more, so I relished the opportunity.
As we chatted about nursing school and goofy pets, the radio broadcast
of a baseball playoff game was heard in the background, gently steering
our discussion toward baseball and sports in general.
Samantha asked me what is the highest level of success an athlete could
reach. Although it was only my opinion, I replied that competing in the
Olympics was the greatest honor any athlete could ever hope to attain.
She asked me to explain my viewpoint, and so, using LeBron James as an
example (knowing that as an in-tune Millenial, she would instantly
recognize the name), that even as one of the NBA's upper tier players,
he volunteered to suit up for the Olympics in 2004, 2008, and 2012.
Bingo! Point made and accepted.
I went on to explain that professional athletes (defined as someone who
accepts money for performing a sport), weren't always allowed in the
Olympics. This gave countries behind the former Iron Curtain an edge in
Olympic competition. Since their communist societies didn't have
professional sports leagues, they were permitted to send their finest
In places like the United States, the best team sport players were
already participating at the professional level (e.g. NBA, NHL) and
were not eligible to compete. Instead, their places were often taken by
amateur college players. This changed in 1986, when the International
Olympic Committee (IOC) opened up the games to professionals as well.
As we were finishing dinner, I asked Samantha if she knew the story of
Jim Thorpe. "Huh?", as she stared blankly. When I was in school, Jim
Thorpe was mentioned in just about every history book. These days, I
suppose the educational establishment prefers to use the page space to
promote some left wing political agenda, so it was no surprise she
didn't know who Jim Thorpe was.
One of my few talents is that I can describe
episodes from history in
storybook fashion, at least well enough to capture and maintain
interest. As my audience of one listened receptively, I explained that
Jim Thorpe was a Native American from Oklahoma, our neighboring state
to the south.
Born in very modest surroundings in 1887, Thorpe faced
many difficulties growing up, and was orphaned by the age of 17.
It was during his high school years that the
public began to take note
of Thorpe's extraordinary athletic abilities. He excelled at every
sport he tried: baseball, basketball, football, track & field...
While playing for tiny Carlisle Indian Industrial School in
Pennsylvania, Thorpe led
his team to the 1912 national collegiate championship by scoring 25
touchdowns, and was
named to the All-American team.
It was Thorpe's performance at the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm, Sweden,
for which perhaps he is best remembered, winning the gold medal in the
pentathlon and decathlon events.
In 1913, it was discovered Thorpe had received a small amount of pay in
1909-10 for playing semi-pro baseball. The IOC ruled him as a
professional, not an amateur, and stripped him of his gold medals,
declaring runners-up Fernando Bie of Norway (pentathlon) and Hugo
Wieslander of Sweden (decathlon) as the winners. Neither athlete
wanted the gold, saying the only true deserving champion was Thorpe.
Thorpe went on to play major league baseball and was one of the NFL's
earliest star players. He retired from sports in 1928 at the age of 41
and passed away in 1953, just shy of his 65th birthday.
From the time of his retirement onward, Thorpe's
legacy and place in
history began to grow. In 1950, the Associated Press polled hundreds of
sportswriters and broadcasters who chose Thorpe as the Greatest Athlete
of the First Half of the 20th Century. In 1963, he was elected to the
NFL Hall of Fame. In 1999, the AP placed him third on the list of the
top athletes of the century, behind only Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.
A short time later, in a poll of sports fans sponsored by ABC, Thorpe
was voted the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century (I don't know about
you, but I get
choked up thinking about that).
Samantha seemed fairly impressed with Thorpe's feats and rise to fame
from nothing. (In all honesty, I gave her the condensed version of the
above... I am not a walking encyclopedia, so I had to look up some of
the details for this blog article.) What an amazing set of
accomplishments for one man. But there is a major "rest of the story"
In 1982, Thorpe's supporters, with the backing of the U.S. Congress,
demonstrated the IOC had broken its own rules by disqualifying Thorpe
after the 30-day time window for challenges had closed. Eventually, the
IOC agreed it had erred in 1913 and declared Thorpe as co-champions
with Bie and Wieslander. In a ceremony held on January 18,
1983, the IOC "returned" the medals to Thorpe's family (the original
medals from 1912 were stolen from a museum). Justice finally prevailed,
though 70 years late.
The very next day, I finally got around to
reading my Oct 26, 2015
edition of Coin World*
magazine, doing a
double take upon reaching page five. Recall, just the evening before, I
heralded the Jim Thorpe saga to
my daughter. In a remarkable coincidence, Coin World was reporting on
the approved design for the 2018 Native American Dollar featuring...
guessed it, Jim Thorpe.
Samantha was in the next room, so I called her into my office. With the
lesson still fresh from the evening before, she immediately understood
why a coin commemorating Jim Thorpe would be a worthy theme.
felt a bit of personal satisfaction, because this time, there was
backup evidence showing good ole dad knew what he was talking about.
Also made me look wise and prophetic (that's PROPHETIC, not pathetic,
LOL). Thanks, Jim!
The Thorpe design will display on the reverse of the Sacagawea Dollar.
Every year since 2009, the Native American Dollar has carried the
Sacagawea obverse, with a new reverse every year. In 2018, it will be
Jim Thorpe's turn. What a fitting tribute for one of our greatest
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