Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, but he was soon stripped of his medals for violating stiff-necked rules of amateurism for having played minor league baseball for token remuneration. In a fit of conscience, Olympic officials restored the medals in 1982, but, by then, Thorpe was long dead and entombed via a bizarre arrangement in which two Pennsylvania mining towns Thorpe had never visited — Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk — officially changed their name to Jim Thorpe, Pa. The 1954 deal with Thorpe’s widow provided a red granite mausoleum for the great athlete’s remains and hope that his name and grave would stir a boom in tourism and local pride amid the hard times of recession.
All that was prelude to a judge’s ruling this month that Thorpe’s two surviving sons had the right under American Indian ancestral law to move his remains from Jim Thorpe, Pa., to the Sac and Fox lands in Oklahoma where he was raised. The ruling was another chapter in the meandering ways of the Thorpe legend. He was rightly acclaimed as one of the surpassing athletes of the 20th century but ultimately pitied for being exploited by handlers and promoters amid his fall into alcoholism. Thorpe proved his true worth as a competitor. His spectacular time for the grueling decathlon test in the 1,500 meters — 4 minutes 40.1 seconds — stood for 60 years.