It has been an enjoyable couple of weeks, in which we have been privileged to sit in our living rooms and watch the planet's most gifted athletes compete at the 2012 London Olympic Games---thanks to the wonders of TV coverage.
The Olympics go back a long, very long way, to at least 776 B.C., in Olympia, Greece. The first games were a far cry from the games we watched this month. They were held every four years, like now, but they involved just a few of the larger cities in Greece, though men (men only) from other countries were gradually added. More, the Games were meant to be a religious exercise, honoring the King of the Grecian Gods, Zeus. A magnificent, 39 foot-high statue of Zeus, made of ivory and gold, was the center point of the Ancient Games. This Zeus statue was chosen as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Ancient Olympic Games, dedicated to Zeus, continued until the Romans conquered the Greeks and suppressed their Pagan Ceremonies, as part of their campaign to convert the Greeks to Christianity.
Originally, in the Ancient Olympics, there were just a few sports offered---notably foot races, discus tossing, wrestling, boxing, and chariot races. Boxing matches tended to become quite brutal. Hard leather straps were wrapped around a boxer's hands. These straps were sharp and cut an opponent's flesh. Since the bout went on until one or the other boxer could not continue, a loser was badly cut up and sometimes near death. Still, the Games were popular. Winners of events were well taken care of. Besides the laurel wreaths, awarded to champions, they were esteemed and praised, and their exploits were well chronicled for future generations.
In the years after the Romans brought the Ancient Games to a halt there were numerous attempts to revive the Olympic Games, but none was successful. Finally, in 1896, largely through the efforts of one Pierre de Coubertin, a French Baron, the first of the "Modern" Olympic Games was held again at the birthplace of the Olympics, in Athens, Greece.
Baron de Coubertin was an unlikely source of inspiration for the Games' revival. He was a member of the French Aristocracy, and those in that privileged class looked down their noses at sports and games, as frivolous. But de Coubertin had seen the French get soundly trounced in the Franco-Prussian War and felt that the French defeat was largely due to the lack of physical conditioning by the French people generally, and the French Army in particular. He sought to elevate the status of physical conditioning, as a way to improve the French people.
The events at the 1896 Athens Olympic Games were similar to the Ancient Games. There were problems, to be sure, with that first Modern Olympiad, but the Games went off well enough that four years later there were more events added, and more participation by more countries and athletes. A big push was made for keeping the Games in Athens permanently, but since the 1900 Games had already been awarded to Paris, de Coubertin's original plan to award the games to a new city each four years was retained.
By 1912, at the Games in Stockholm, a routine was well established. One big change, proposed by de Coubertin, was that the old roster of events for the Pentathlon -- Standing Broad Jump, Discus Throw, Javelin Throw, 192 Meter Run, and Greco-Roman Wrestling, be replaced by a Modern Pentathlon, more tailored to military needs---Shooting, Swimming, Fencing, Equestrian, 4,000 Meter Run. (Future General George Patton represented the US in the 1912 Olympics (Modern) Pentathlon, but failed to medal, finishing 4th.) The Olympic Committee compromised, and in 1912 they held two Pentathlon events, both the old and the new.
Easily, the most outstanding athlete at the Stockholm Games was Jim Thorpe, a Native American, who represented the USA. Thorpe, a member of the Sac & Fox Indian Tribe in Oklahoma had gone to school at the Carlisle Industrial School, a boarding school for Native Americans at Carlisle, PA. Pop Warner, the legendary football coach was Thorpe's coach. He took Thorpe under his wing and helped him develop into a World Class Athlete.
Thorpe led Carlisle to a National football Championship in 1911. In 1912, in Stockholm, he won Gold medals in both the old style Pentathlon and the new Decathlon, and then returned to Carlisle, where he again led his team to a Top 10 finish in the football polls. One of the notable victories for the Carlisle Indians in 1912 was a win over an extremely strong Army (West Point) team---a team on which future General, Dwight Eisenhower was a member.
Almost as an afterthought, Coach Warner suggested that Jim Thorpe should enter the U.S. Olympic trials in the Pentathlon and the Decathlon. Thorpe easily won the US Pentathlon, making the US Olympic Team. There was so little interest in the US Decathlon that it was cancelled. Only after the team was in Sweden, and the US had no one entered, did the coaches decide to enter Thorpe in the Decathlon. It proved to be a good decision.
On July 7, Thorpe competed in the Pentathlon, blowing away his competition by winning four of five events. It was a remarkable performance, since someone had stolen his track shoes, and the ones he wore were too large so he had to wear extra socks to keep them on.
A week later, Thorpe competed in the Decathlon, over a three day period. His opposition was the renowned World Champion from Sweden, Hugo Wieslander. Again, Thorpe ran away from his competition, defeating 2nd place, Wieslander by a record 700 points, establishing a record that would stand for a generation.
It is difficult to over-estimate Thorpe's achievement at Stockholm. It was like entering and either winning or medaling in 15 separate events. Some of Thorpe's times in the various events stood up until after World War II! At the Medals' Ceremony Thorpe was presented his gold medals by the King of Sweden, Gustav V. As Gustav presented Thorpe's medals he said, "You, Sir, are the greatest athlete in the world!" To which Thorpe replied, "Thanks King."
When he returned to New York he was treated to a ticker tape parade. Thorpe was overwhelmed, remarking, " ... I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends."
Not everyone was Thorpe's friend in 1912. The Olympic Committee had a rule that winners must be challenged within 30 days to change an Olympic event. However, in Thorpe's case, they waited until 1913 to challenge Jim's two golds. They claimed that Thorpe had participated in Minor League baseball (for pay) prior to the 1912 Games, to which Thorpe freely admitted (but not in the sports in which he had competed) -- for $2-$5 per game. No matter, In 1913 Thorpe was stripped of his medals and his records were stricken from Olympic charts.
It seems strange today, when Olympic athletes are no longer amateurs, and indeed, many have become wealthy through their sport, ie: The US Men's Basketball team. (Note: In 1982 The International Olympic Committee changed their Thorpe ruling---sort of. They sent the Thorpe family -- Jim was gone -- duplicate medals, and declared him "Co-Champion" with the second place competitors, though Thorpe had soundly trounced all his rivals).
Thorpe went on to have an illustrious career, as a star in Professional Football, and was one of the founders of the National Football League. But money ever alluded Thorpe.
I was in the Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1951 and was privileged to attend a giant Pow Wow at the reservation at Anadarko , where Jim Thorpe was introduced as the honored guest. The Warner Bros. movie, Jim Thorpe, All American, starring Burt Lancaster, had just come out. I thought it was a great movie and it was widely acclaimed at the time. Yet, when Thorpe made his remarks, he urged us, "Don't go to that movie. The white man has cheated me again!" No doubt he was thinking back on the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, among other perceived wrongs.
Thorpe died a bitter and broken "old" man of 64 in California in March 1953.
Source: Ancient Olympics, 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Jim Thorpe bio