1910-15: Jim Thorpe
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AFTER WINNING the pentathlon and decathlon events at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Jim Thorpe was embarrassed to hear the King of Sweden call him "the most wonderful athlete in the world". Yet the shy American Indian was that and more. Not only the outstanding athlete of his generation, he became an exceptional American footballer and was as accomplished baseball player. It was baseball that cost him his two Olympic gold medals.

He was born on an Indian reservation, his paternal grandfather, an Irish trapper, having married a granddaughter of Chief Black Hawk. When Jim was born, his mother, who was of the Pottowanie tribe, added the name Wa-Tho-Huck, or Bright Path. It was almost a premonition since, without any training apart from running up to 20 miles a day following the buffalo, he was to excel at all sports. But at 20 he received $60 a month for playing baseball. "I did not play for the money but because I liked baseball," he said after the pedantic International Olympic Committee later removed his name from the records.

Those records were extraordinary. He won four of the five 1912 Olympic pentathlon events, then won the decathlon by a margin of more than 700 points. His total of 6,756 (based on the present scoring system) was not beaten for 15 years.

Among those Thorpe beat in the pentathlon was an American called Avery Brundage, later to become an IOC president, who defiantly stood up against Thorpe's reinstatement. Thorpe also finished fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump.

Soon afterwards a newspaper mentioned that he had been paid for playing baseball for a minor league club. The Amateur Athletic Union wrote to the Swedish Olympic Committee expressing their regret that they had included a "professional", suggesting that as an "illiterate" Indian Thorpe was unaware of the rules. In May, 1913, the IOC told Thorpe to return his medals.

In 1950 the Associated Press conducted a poll to determine the greatest sportsmen of the first 50 years of the century. Thorpe won, partly for his athletics but mainly for being an outstanding American footballer, which he remained until the age of 41.

During the 1930s and 40s he appeared in several Westerns, and in 1951 a biographical film was made about his career starring Burt Lancaster. He died in 1953, unaware that a long campaign to have him reinstated finally succeeded 29 years later.