Today is July 10 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you adapt to unforeseen conditions?”
James Francis Thorpe (1887-1953) was an American athlete and Olympic gold medalist. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe became the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States. Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon. Since the pentathlon had five events and the decathlon ten, Thorpe would compete in a remarkable 15 different Olympic events.
Thorpe began the Olympics by crushing the field in the now-defunct pentathlon, which consisted of five events in a single day. He placed first in four of them, dusting his competition in the 1,500-meter run by almost five seconds.
As Sally Jenkins wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine “A week later the three-day decathlon competition began in a pouring rain. Thorpe opened the event by splashing down the track in the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds—a time not equaled at the Olympics until 1948. On the second day, Thorpe’s shoes were missing. His coach Pop Warner hastily put together a mismatched pair in time for the high jump, which Thorpe won. Later that afternoon came one of his favorite events, the 110-meter hurdles. Thorpe blistered the track in 15.6 seconds, again quicker than Bob Mathias would run it in 1948.”
On the final day of competition, Thorpe placed third and fourth in the events in which he was most inexperienced, the pole vault and javelin. Then came the very last event, the 1,500-meter run. The metric mile was a leg-burning monster that came after nine other events over two days. And he was still in mismatched shoes. Thorpe left cinders in the faces of his competitors. He ran it in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds.
Thorpe would rely upon his drive, dedication, and hustle to carve out a variety of career paths following the Olympics. He would go on and become a major-league baseball player, co-founder of the National Football League and even pro basketball player—before winding up a stunt performer and Hollywood character actor. He died there of heart failure in 1953 at age 64.
An unfortunate footnote in Thorpe’s incredible life story is the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped him of his medals after it was found he had been paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the amateurism rules that were then in place. While some researchers might note that in 1983 the IOC restored his Olympic medals. But that is not the complete story. As Jenkins wrote “It’s commonly believed that Thorpe at last received Olympic justice in October of 1982 when the IOC bowed to years of public pressure and delivered two replica medals to his family, announcing, ‘The name of James Thorpe will be added to the list of athletes who were crowned Olympic champions at the 1912 Games.’ What’s less commonly known is that the IOC appended this small, mean sentence: ‘However, the official report for these Games will not be modified.’”
The prolific English author Agatha Christie wrote “There is no telling what a human character is. Until the test comes. A man is confronted quite soon with the necessity to stand on his own feet, to face dangers and difficulties and to take his own line of dealing with them.”
Thorpe was tested time and again during the 1912 Olympics. In 15 different events at the highest level of competition he proved that he was the greatest athlete of his time. When consider all those who competed after him, it would be difficult to claim otherwise. Not bad for an athlete who needed to compete with mismatched shoes.
Thorpe figured out ‘his own line of dealing’ with last minute obstacles. Do you?