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article imageOp-Ed: With Apologies To Phelps, Thorpe Still Owns The Greatest Olympic Performance

By Sadiq Green     Aug 20, 2008 in Sports
Michael Phelps’ amazing performance at this year's Beijing Summer Olympics has many calling it the greatest Olympic performance in history. However the 2012 London Olympics will mark the centennial of the great performance Jim Thorpe gave in Stockholm.
Phelps set a mens record for winning Gold medals in an Olympics career with 16 and the record for the most gold medals won at a single Olympics; a total of eight, surpassing Mark Spitz's’ 1972 performance. Both swimmers whose versatility allowed them to succeed in the full gamut of swimming events. But they were nevertheless, all swimming events.
Jim Thorpe has to still be considered one of the most versatile athletes in modern sports and his Olympic performance of 1912 is still unmatched. He won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. His performance can be argued as being the greatest, not in terms of medals won but on the events he won them in and those events entail.
For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, two new multi-event challenges were on the program, the pentathlon and the decathlon. The pentathlon has 5 stages and is based on the ancient Greek event. It consists of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-meter dash, the discus throw and the 1500-meter run. The decathlon, a 10 stage event, was new to athletics (what is now track & field) and the 1912 Olympics. In addition to these events Thorpe also entered the long-jump and high-jump competitions.
Phelps won his eight medals over nine days of competition. Thorpe's competition schedule was a bit more demanding during his Olympics. His first scheduled event was the pentathlon and Thorpe was the cream of the crop in a field that included future World War II general George Patton, winning four events. He placed third in the javelin, an event he had not competed in before 1912. Although the competition was decided on place finished, points were and are still also calculated for the times achieved in the events. The same day he won the pentathlon gold, Thorpe qualified for the high-jump final. In that final, he placed fourth and took seventh place in the long jump.
Thorpe's final event was the decathlon, where he was expected to face stiff competition from local favorite Hugo Wieslander. Thorpe, however, easily defeated Wieslander, finishing nearly 700 points ahead of him. He placed in the top four of all ten events. Overall, Thorpe won eight of the two competitions' 15 individual events. It was Thorpe’s first and only Olympic competition. Thorpe's Olympic record 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades. Apart from his track and field appearance, Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball matches held at the 1912 Olympics.
His medals were presented during the closing ceremonies of the games. Along with the two gold medals, Thorpe also received two challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon.
At the time of his Olympic performance Thorpe was a student at Carlisle (Pa.) Indian Industrial School. In late January 1913, U.S. newspapers published stories announcing that Thorpe had played professional baseball. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally, but most, as opposed to Thorpe, used aliases. The AAU – Amateur Athletic Union - decided to retroactively withdraw Thorpe's amateur status and asked the IOC – International Olympic Committee - to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards and declared him a professional.
As the news got out that he had been declared a professional, offers came in from professional clubs. He went on to play professional football and baseball. He also barnstormed the country as part of an all American Indian basketball team. After his professional sports career ended, Thorpe lived in abject poverty, something that an athlete of his stature today would never have to endure as DJ’s Chris Hogg points out in a recent article. He would have graced the covers of Sports Illustrated or ESPN Magazine. It would be interesting to see how The Sporting News, which was 26 years old at the covered Thorpe at those Olympics. Nike or Adidas would have been falling over themselves to give him athletic apparel. He struggled with alcoholism and lived out the last years of his life in failing health dying after his third heart attack in March 1953.
In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee which once had Thorpe's former Olympic teammate Avery Brundage as it's president, approved Thorpe's reinstatement. They declared that Thorpe was now co-champion with Wieslander, even though he had always said he considered Thorpe to be the only champion. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, two of Thorpe's children, Gale and Bill, were presented with commemorative medals thirty years after his death. Thorpe was named the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century by the Associated Press (AP), in 1950. He ranked third on the AP and The Sporting News' list of top athletes of the century in 1999. Phelps could easily be headed for that honor for this new century, with at least one more Olympics and possibly two in the future for him.
Phelps easily goes down in history as one of the greatest Olympic individual performers along with Soviet gymnast Alexander Dityatin and his now shared record of eight medals of any type at a single Olympics (Moscow 1980); Eric Heiden’s five speed skating gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics; Vitaly Scherbo’s ten total Olympic medals (six gold medals at the 1992 Summer Games, and 4 bronze at the 1996 Atlanta games) in Artistic Gymnastics and Carl Lewis’ 10 medals (nine gold and a silver) spanning four Olympics in track and field. Phelps ranks second in total career Olympic medals, after Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina, who won a total of 18 medals (nine gold) spanning three Olympic Games (1956, ‘60 and ’64).
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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