Jim Thorpe, a Native American, excelled in almost every sport he played, becoming one of the most gifted athletes of all time. His legendary status swung into mythology, partly encouraged by Thorpe himself and partly created by the media of his time, which also dealt with racist stereotypes about the prowess of Indigenous peoples.
Separating the truth of Thorpe’s life from the many fictions is a task reserved for the most competent biographers. David Maraniss, deputy editor of the Washington Post, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and author of 12 previous books, including “When Pride Still Mattered,” a biography of famed soccer coach Vince Lombardi, takes up that challenge. He aims to set the record straight in “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe”.
James Francis Thorpe was born in 1887, in present-day Oklahoma, of the Sac and Fox line. He was given a second name: Wa-tho-Huk. A translation of the name, the author writes, is “Path Lit by Lightning,” which doubles as a powerful title for the book. Thorpe’s early life was defined by tragedy, losing his beloved twin brother and mother during his formative years.
As a teenager, he was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The school, like others run by the government, made no secret of its mission: to exterminate the indigenous identity of young people in order to force them to assimilate. “All [was done] with one goal – to reshape the youth [Native Americans] like white people,” writes Maraniss.
Despite the school’s heinous intentions and an atmosphere that could feel like a prison, Thorpe’s years at Carlisle were among his happiest, according to Maraniss. It was there that he found a sense of community and his raw athletic talent was first recognized: “His teammates could sense he was different,” writes Maraniss. “They had seen…the rare combination of strength, speed, stubbornness, instinct and nimble grace, the hint of danger and the spark of electricity.”
Carlisle’s football team, thanks in large part to Thorpe’s contributions, dominated game after game against some of the best college teams in the country, and he shone as an individual in athletics, earning him a berth in the Olympics. summer of 1912 in Stockholm, where he swept the competition.
He won gold in the Olympic pentathlon and decathlon, but was later stripped of his medals after finding out he had once played semi-professional baseball, which meant he wasn’t an amateur like required by the Olympic rules.
The question of restoring his medals continued to arise during his lifetime and after his death in 1953, until a concession was granted by the International Olympic Committee in the 1980s, which named him co- winner of both races. Maraniss’ book comes just in time to see the IOC recognize Thorpe as the sole winner of both titles.
The Olympic scandal marked the beginning of a difficult path for Thorpe, a path more strewn with trials than lit by lightning. Although he played baseball and football professionally and was briefly president of what would become the National Football League, he was never financially secure. He could not settle in a place or in a career.
Perhaps because of the trauma of his youth and the treatment he received in public schools, he struggled to be a consistent father and husband and had periods of alcohol addiction.
Maraniss not only succeeds in revealing the man behind the fable, but also exposes the shameful treatment Native Americans endured, as the government sought to take their land and erase their culture.
By telling the story of an athlete who frankly deserved better, the author demonstrates both Thorpe’s perseverance and courage, as well as the discriminatory policies that tried to hold him back.