Thorpe's parents were of mixed-race descent and both were Catholic. His father, Hiram Thorpe, had an Irish father and a Sac and Fox Indian mother. His mother, Charlotte Vieux, had a French father and a Potawatomi mother, a descendant of Chief Louis Vieux. Thorpe was raised as a Sac and Fox, and his native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as "a path lighted by a great flash of lightning" or, more simply, "Bright Path". As was the custom for Sac and Fox, Thorpe was named for something occurring around the time of his birth, in this case the light brightening the path to the cabin where he was born. Thorpe's mother was Roman Catholic and raised her children in that faith, which Thorpe observed throughout his adult life.
Together with his twin brother, Charlie, Thorpe went to school in Stroud, Oklahoma at the Sac and Fox Indian Agency School. Charlie died of pneumonia when he was nine years old. Charlie had helped Jim through school. Thorpe did not handle his brother's death well and ran away from school on several occasions. Hiram Thorpe then sent him to the present-day Haskell Indian Nations University, in Lawrence, Kansas, so that he would not run away again. When his mother died of childbirth complications two years later, Thorpe fell into a depression. After several arguments with his father, he ran away from home to work on a horse ranch.
For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, two new multi-event disciplines were on the program, the pentathlon and the decathlon. A pentathlon based on the ancient Greek event had been organized at the 1906 Summer Olympics. The 1912 edition consisted of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-meter dash, the discus throw and the 1500-meter run.
The decathlon was an entirely new event in athletics, although it had been part of American track meets since the 1880s and a version had been featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. The events of the new decathlon were slightly different from the American version. Both events seemed a fit for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he alone had formed Carlisle's team in several track meets. He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus 136 feet.
Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon. He easily won the awards, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage. There were only a few candidates for the decathlon team, and the trials were cancelled.
Thorpe competed in his first—and, as it turned out, only—decathlon in the Olympics. Thorpe's Olympic record of 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades.
Thorpe's schedule in the Olympics was crowded. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he entered the long-jump and high-jump competitions. The first event scheduled was the pentathlon. Thorpe was the class of the field, winning four events. He placed only third in the javelin, an event he had not competed in before 1912. Although the competition was primarily decided on place points, points were also calculated for the marks achieved in the events. He won the gold medal.
College Football Hall of Fame - 1951
Charter Enshrinee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame - 1963
All-America - 1911, 1912
Olympic Decathlon and Pentathlon Champion - 1912
AP Most Outstanding Athlete of the First Half of the 20th Century - 1950
"America's Greatest Football Player of the half-century" - 1950
ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century - 2001
Track and Field Hall of Fame
In 1950, the nation's press selected Jim Thorpe as the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the 20th Century
From 1996-2001, he was continuously awarded ABC's Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century award