As Olympic comebacks go, it is hard to top. Last month, Jim Thorpe was reinstated as sole gold medalist in the pentathlon and decathlon in the Stockholm games, more than a century after he won them.
Thorpe, a Native American, starred in 1912 only to be stripped of his titles for breaking strict amateurism rules. His family and other campaigners long believed the decision unjust and racist. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared Thorpe joint winner of both events but did not restore his Olympic records. Finally, on the 110th anniversary of Thorpe winning the decathlon, it recognised him as the outright winner of both events.
The account of how Thorpe was robbed makes for a central chapter in Path Lit by Lightning, David Maraniss’s new biography of the man who – gifted at athletics, baseball, football, ice skating and even ballroom dancing – was voted the Associated Press Athlete of the Half-Century in 1950.
Maraniss, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author, recounts how Thorpe returned from Stockholm to a ticker-tape parade in New York, only to have his medals taken away when it emerged he had been paid $25 a week to play minor league baseball.
Maraniss points out that hundreds of college athletes played summer baseball but most – including the future president Dwight Eisenhower – did so under pseudonyms. Thorpe used his real name, which appeared in newspapers in North Carolina. When the scandal broke, coaches and officials lied to save their skins. Compounding the unfairness, the complaint about Thorpe came after the IOC’s own 30-day deadline.
The impact on Thorpe was devastating.
“He was a pretty stoic figure, but I would say that losing the medals and then losing his first son, his namesake [who died of infantile paralysis aged three], were the two most heartbreaking moments of his life,” Maraniss says, in the back garden of his home in north-west Washington.
“In one sense he remained the revered, great athlete but still he was screwed and he thought that it was part of being an Indian – that’s why it happened. So it definitely had a profound effect on him. As he grew older, I think it became more and more important to him to try to get restoration of those medals. It didn’t happen in his lifetime.”
Now 73, an associate editor at the Washington Post and distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, Maraniss is perfectly placed to take the measure of politics in sport and the sport of politics. He has written biographies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Puerto Rican baseball great Roberto Clemente and the revered football coach Vince Lombardi. What’s the difference between writing a political or sporting life?
“I try to use the same methodology for all of my books, so the differences aren’t so much between a president and a sporting figure but between somebody who’s alive and somebody who’s dead. Clinton and Obama were both alive when I was writing about them so that created different problems and made me look at them in a different way.
“I view it the same way, a way to write about history through the life story of someone that I’m interested in. And of course, politicians and athletes both have lives that are built upon competition, wins and losses, trying to figure out how to survive. All of those elements are the same.”
Thorpe fitted the bill. Maraniss would put him on a “Mount Rushmore” of American athletes alongside Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron.
“Here was a chance to write not just about the phenomenal athletic experience but to use his life to write about the Native American experience because from the time of his birth through his death was really the central period of America trying to drain the Indians of their ‘Indianness’.
“He went through that whole period and was in the boarding schools, which have become, again, so much in the news. I guess my motivation was that I saw in Thorpe everything I look for in a book: a dramatic story plus a way to illuminate the history through that biography.”