One century ago, there stood a man so marvelous 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 for all to see how he dominated the competition.
Stories spread. People gossiped. The legend of Thorpe grew. An 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.”
In pursuit of ‘world's greatest'
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 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.”
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