Rupert Cornwell: A tug-of-warover America's greatest athlete

Out of America: The body of 1912 Olympian Jim Thorpe may be removed from the town that bears his name
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The Independent Online

The US, as you might expect, has some pretty weird placenames. Take, for example, Truth or Consequences in New Mexico, eternal memorial to a 1950s radio quiz show. Or Why in Arizona, named after a Y-shaped highway junction (the state's laws apparently require that every placename has at least three letters).

And then there's Jim Thorpe, a little tourist town in rural Pennsylvania famous for its splendid scenery and handsome architecture. Thereby hangs a bizarre and melancholy tale – of a dispute about the last resting place of an Oklahoma Indian who died in poverty over half a century ago, and who may just be the greatest athlete America ever produced.

Jim Thorpe, so far as is known, never went to Jim Thorpe in his life. He was of mixed blood, born in 1888 to a white mother and Native American father. He grew up as a member of the Sac and Fox tribe of central Oklahoma, which knew him as Watha Huck, or "Bright Path". Only when he was sent to a boarding school out east did his astonishing sporting gifts became apparent.

American football was, and remained, his first love, and Thorpe is reckoned to be one of the greatest players in the game's history. He was also good enough at baseball to play several seasons in the major leagues. But it was what Americans call track and field that made him world famous.

At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he won the pentathlon and the decathlon, the latter with a points score that would remain unbeaten for 20 years. As he presented the decathlon gold medal, King Gustav V of Sweden told Thorpe: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." To which the rough-hewn Thorpe is said to have replied, "Thanks, King."

Then, however, calamity struck. Squeaky-clean amateurism was de rigueur in the Olympics back then; Thorpe, it was revealed in 1913, had once played baseball for money. No matter that he received the pittance of $2 a game for his intermittent efforts in the humble North Carolina leagues. He was retroactively declared a professional, and stripped of his medals and titles.

Financially, it wasn't a disaster – Thorpe could now unashamedly play pro baseball and pro football. He became one of the founding fathers of what is now the NFL. "He could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw," said a young West Point cadet named Dwight Eisenhower, who played against him in a college game in 1912.

The magnitude of Thorpe's achievements were recognised in his lifetime: in 1950 a poll ranked him America's greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, ahead of even Babe Ruth and Joe Louis, and the following year Burt Lancaster played him on screen. But the Olympic debacle, which may well have had racist undertones, never ceased to rankle.

After he retired, his life unravelled. Business ventures failed; he became an alcoholic. When Thorpe died in a trailer home in California in March 1953, at the age of 64, there wasn't even money for a coffin. Friends, relatives and admirers, however, rustled up enough for the body to be taken back to Oklahoma, where there were demands, especially from the Indian community, that the state erect a fitting memorial to its most famous son.

But Oklahoma said no – and Thorpe's third wife Patsy, who was with him when he died, decided he should be buried somewhere that appreciated him. So enter Jim Thorpe the place, or rather the twin townships of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, deep in the forests of Appalachia, 1,300 miles north-east of the bare Oklahoma plains.

By mid-century, the coal mines on which the region had thrived were closing, and the struggling Mauch Chunks declared themselves ready for anything to secure a new source of income. Patsy Thorpe found out, and a deal was struck. Jim Thorpe would be buried there beneath a proper monument, and the townships would merge and take his name. She was paid the expenses of moving his remains. In return, the rechristened Jim Thorpe would be transformed into a major tourist attraction.

His new resting place kept its end of the bargain. It did the great athlete proud, raising $10,000 from private donations for a marble tomb and a small memorial park chronicling his life and achievements. But the tourists never showed up – at least not for him. The town today prospers thanks to holidaymakers who flock to its stunning natural setting. As far as Thorpe himself was concerned though, a local official once remarked: "All we got was a dead Indian."

Now Thorpe's surviving children, led by 73-year old Jack Thorpe, a son by his father's second marriage, want him back. Without a proper burial ceremony, in his native Oklahoman earth, Jack maintains, Jim Thorpe's soul continues to wander. Thorpe's children by his first marriage disagreed, arguing he was fine where he was – but they and Patsy are all now dead.

This summer, Jack Thorpe sued Jim Thorpe for the return of Jim Thorpe, under the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, providing for Indian graves and other cultural artefacts to be returned to tribes that have lost them. The case is anything but clear-cut. Patsy Thorpe signed a binding contract with the Mauch Chunk city fathers for the transfer of his body, and the Pennsylvania town is showing no inclination to return its namesake.

It took 70 years for his two gold medals to be reinstated by the International Olympic Committee, in 1982. So maybe in a decade or so, his body will go back to Oklahoma, to the tiny plot in the corner of the dusty cemetery where other members of the family lie.

In that case, presumably, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania will go back to being Mauch Chunk. Which, of course, is a pretty weird placename, too.

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