|Welcome to this issue of "Dr. T's Timely Tips" by Dr. Tony Alessandra. Please send your feedback to email@example.com!
Geniuses are defined by the adversities they overcome. In 1950, a group of 400 sportswriters and broadcasters was asked to name the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century. This was a time that included baseball players such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio; football players like Red Grange and Sammy Baugh (pronounce BAW); and boxers like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis. But really, the choice of the greatest athlete of the first 50 years was not much of a contest. In fact, a viewer poll taken at the Super Bowl in the year 2000 came to the same conclusion for the entire 20th century. The greatest athlete was Wa-tho-huck, a Native American of the Sac and Fox tribe. He was better known to the world as Jim Thorpe.
If that choice surprises you, there are several possible reasons. First, Jim Thorpe was born in 1888. He lived before the media documentation of sports was as developed as it is today. Second, he came from an obscure area of the nation and was part of a small ethnic minority. Third, and most tragically, some of his accomplishments were discredited for trivial reasons that had class and racial prejudice as their basis.
But still... I can almost hear you saying: "The greatest athlete? Jim Thorpe?"
Well, let's look at some of his accomplishments. Jim Thorpe is the only American athlete is history to truly excel in three major sports, both as an amateur and as a professional. In 1912, Thorpe led the football team from the Carlisle Indian School, in Pennsylvania, to the national collegiate championship, defeating some of the country's most powerful teams. Among the opposing players he steamrollered was the young Dwight Eisenhower of Army, who never played again after a tackle by Thorpe. In that same year of 1912, Thorpe won Olympic gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon events. He played major league baseball for six years, with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves, and finished the 1919 season with a .327 batting average. At various other times, he starred in ice hockey, swimming, lacrosse, boxing, and tennis. He also led the Canton Bulldogs of the American Football Association to the unofficial world title. Thorpe even served as the commissioner of the league, which was the forerunner of the NFL. In 1963, he was elected to the professional football Hall of Fame.
Needless to say, Jim Thorpe was a tough guy. He was not a diplomat or a telegenic talking head. At the 1912 Olympics, as he presented Thorpe with a gold medal, the king of Sweden declared, "You are the greatest athlete in the world." Jim Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King." In this sense, maybe it's a good thing that the media was relatively limited during Jim Thorpe's prime years. Nevertheless, he was still the best-known athlete of his time.
Just based on newspaper stories, huge crowds showed up to watch him in his different sports. Of course, just as there was no television or radio, endorsement opportunities were severely limited -- especially for non-white athletes. Moreover, Jim Thorpe's background was about as poor as it was possible to be. He had to support himself somehow, and there were not a lot of jobs for Native Americans who were also training for world-class athletic competitions. In any case, within a few months of his Olympic victories, the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States retroactively voided Jim Thorpe's amateur athletic status because he had played in a semi-professional baseball game. As a result, his medals were taken away.
When his playing days were over, Thorpe became an actor and stunt man in Hollywood films. He also served in the Merchant Marine during World War 2.
Often, the world does not treat genius kindly. This has been especially true for athletes from minority backgrounds -- the kind of background from which many have come. From Jim Thorpe through Muhammad Ali, society has found reasons -- perhaps justified, perhaps not -- to bring sanctions against some of the greatest. Today, with the temptations greater than ever before, it is not easy to be a genius athlete without something going wrong sooner or later. That is especially true when an athlete is as dominant and high profile as Jim Thorpe was.
In 1982, almost 30 years after his death, Thorpe's amateur status and his Olympic medals were officially restored -- which probably didn't do him much good. The story of Jim Thorpe is important because, without question, he was one of the greatest physical geniuses of any era. And he encountered the kind of off-the-field problems that dominant athletes often seem to encounter, especially today.
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