ID 165
Title The Sad Story of Jim Thorpe - the 'Greatest Ever' Athlete
Broadcast 2012-07-04 00:00:00
Network Radio 4
Presenter Mark Whitaker
Producer Mark Whitaker
Precis 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the Stockholm Olympics, where the greatest star was the 'Indian' American Jim Thorpe. He returned a national hero, but in 1913 he was stripped of his medals by a jealous and racist US athletic elite. In 1953 his widow sold his remains to a Pennsylvania town, and his descendents are now trying to get them back.
Duration 28
Txtime 1899-12-30 11:00:00
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Description This programme explores the sad and controversial life of Jim Thorpe – the American Indian who was the star of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where the Swedish King famously told him ‘Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world’.

Thorpe had grown up on the Sac and Fox Indian reservation in Oklahoma, and then, as a teenager, was sent 1500 miles away to a boarding school in Pennsylvania whose purpose was to ‘civilise’ Indian children by eradicating their culture. Its moto was ‘Kill the Indian and save the man’. The pupils were forced to wear military uniforms, to have short hair, and were punished if they spoke their own languages. “The last phase of the Indian wars was fought in the classroom”, says a contributor.

Thorpe was saved by sport, and became the school’s great star, at both athletics and American football. He’s often described as the ‘first international sporting superstar’. But in 1913 it came out that he had been paid a few dollars to play minor-league baseball, and the elite amateurs who ran US athletics rushed to condemn him as a professional, and he was summarily stripped of his medals.

However the public were on his side, and his status in America is that of a popular hero victimised by those in power. He went on to become the first great professional football player. But he could never cope with fame and died in near poverty in 1953. His widow arranged for him to be buried in a small town in Pennsylvania who offered to build a memorial to him. They agreed to change their name to ‘Jim Thorpe’: but his Indian tribe are pursuing a legal battle to have his remains returned to Oklahoma.
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Caption1 A statue of Jim Thorpe
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