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Jim Thorpe rose to world fame as a mythic talent who excelled at every sport. He won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, was an All-American football player at the Carlisle Indian School, the star of the first class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and played major-league baseball for John McGraw’s New York Giants. Even in a golden age of sports celebrities, he was one of a kind.
But despite his colossal skills, Thorpe’s life was a struggle against the odds. As a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, he encountered duplicitous authorities who turned away from him when their reputations were at risk. At Carlisle, he dealt with the racist assimilationist philosophy “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” His gold medals were unfairly rescinded because he had played Minor-League baseball. His later life was troubled by alcohol, broken marriages, and financial distress. He roamed from state to state and took bit parts in Hollywood, but even the film of his own life failed to improve his fortunes.
In a conversation, biographer David Maraniss discusses America’s greatest all-around athlete who, for all his travails, did not succumb. The man survived, complications and all, and so did the myth.
Maraniss is an associate editor at the Washington Post and a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism.
His book, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe (Simon & Schuster), is available for purchase.
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