If you want to bask in glory, bask in this: Thorpe competed in 15 events — and won eight of them — despite losing his track shoes and competing in a mismatched pair, running on a cinder track in a slogging rain. He still turned in a time of 11.2 seconds in the 100-meter dash, which wouldn’t be equaled until 1948.
He ran the 1,500 twice. The second time he ran it, after nine decathlon events in two days, he turned in a time of 4 minutes 40.1 seconds that would stand up as the best by a decathlete until 1972. It stands up even now, a hundred years later, against athletes with the finest shoes, training and technology. On Thursday, silver medalist Hardee ran the same distance in 4:40.94.
Bask in this: Grantland Rice said, “He moved like a breeze.” One of Thorpe’s teachers at the Carlisle Indian School, a young poet named Marianne Moore, said he had “a kind of ease in his gait that is hard to describe. Equilibrium with no strictures.”
The numbers are too static to summon Thorpe. Try to see the actual being: He was 5 feet 11 and 185 pounds, with a 42-inch chest, 32-inch waist, and 24-inch thighs. See a high jumper so superior that he won a bet by touching a chandelier in the lobby of a Paris hotel. See an athlete of such unbridled magnificence that on a grand tour of Europe following the Summer Games, he beat the Olympic champion Fred Kelly in the high hurdles, and finished second in the shot put to the two-time Olympic champion Ralph Rose, who outweighed him by a hundred pounds.
See a man who was as shy as he was great. The fables about Thorpe get in the way of the athlete. King Gustaf of Sweden indeed said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” To which Thorpe was supposed to have said, “Thanks, King.” In fact Thorpe just said, “Thanks,” and then declined a dinner invitation from dignitaries. “I didn’t wish to be gazed upon as a curiosity,” he said. But gaze on him now. When you do, try to see him as he was, not as a still photograph, but in epic motion.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.