How Native American Jim Thorpe Became an Olympic Gold Medalist

Jim Thorpe’s mixed race parents Hiram and Charlotte lived on the Sac and Fox Indian reservation in present-day Oklahoma. As young boys, Jim and his twin brother Charlie fished, hunted small game, and did chores around their father’s farm. At the 1912 summer Olympics, American Jim Thorpe won two gold medals. One of his competitions, the decathlon, required competitors to participate in ten track and field events. Thorpe’s victories were even more remarkable because he couldn’t particpate in organized sports for many years.

The boys’ relatively unregimented lifestyle ended when their parents insisted that Jim and Charlie attend the nearby boarding school run by whites. At the age of six, Jim started classes at the government school.  The school offered no sports, so Jim and his friends made up their own games. One of their favorites was “prairie baseball.” According to Jim, “teams would be chosen and the game would be played out in the field…we were also interested in basketball, but we had no track. Only the Indians participated in this type of activity and it was of an unofficial nature.” Both boys learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic at boarding school, but Jim missed the freedom of the reservation.

The death of Jim’s twin brother Charlie from pneumonia made Jim even more rebellious and he often ran away from school. His father grew tired of Jim’s antics and sent him to the Haskell Institute, a Native American school in Kansas. Though discipline at his new school was strict, Jim started to learn more about organized sports. He and his friends learned the basics of football from one of the school staff members, but Jim also watched the varsity football team practices. One player noticed Jim on the sidelines and, impressed with the younger boy’s knowledge, made him a football out of leather straps sewn together and stuffed with rags. Thrilled with this new gift, Jim organized football games among his classmates.

Jim abruptly left school when he heard his father was injured, but by the time he got home Hiram had recovered. After a few months, however, Jim’s mother passed away. Jim ran away again, but when he returned his father enrolled him in the local school so he could help with the farm. Accounts differ on how he ended up attending the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, but at age sixteen he left home again for vocational school.

Carlisle played an important role in Jim’s sports career. The school had a strong football team, but Jim was too small to play on the varsity squad. Instead, he played on an intramural team. Carlisle’s sports coach Glenn Warner soon noticed the future Olympian. On the way to one of his games, Jim saw the varsity track team practicing the high jump. They couldn’t clear the bar, which was set at five feet nine inches. Jim asked if he could try and succeeded on his first attempt.

The next day, Coach Warner asked Jim if he knew what he had done. Jim said, “Nothing bad I hope.” Warner replied, “Boy, you’ve just broken the school record!” Warner put Jim on the track team—his first experience with organized sports. Jim participated in a variety of sports at Carlisle, but that day marked the start of an amateur career that would eventually lead him to the Olympics as a decathlete.