First of all, so many athletes crowd in at the door and jostle for space in the Olympic pantheon that before you can name one above all the others, you have to group and categorize them. Second, these discussions invariably fail to give proper credit to the historical greats. “They skew towards the modern athlete, because no one remembers,” says Olympic historian Bill Mallon.
When you talk about greatest Olympic athlete do you mean the one with the most medals? That’s Michael Phelps with his 22 doorknockershanging around his neck, including that masterful, testing eight in a fortnight at the Beijing Games. But Phelps has the advantage of being able to enter multiple events and claim relays. In which case you might prefer Larisa Latynina, whose 18 gymnastics medals for the Soviet Union at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics were the record for almost a half-century until Phelps broke it.
Do you mean greatest Olympian, as in an athlete who dominated the Games like no other? Did something so unprecedentedly, and anomalously difficult that it will never be equaled again? That’s Eric Heiden, with his five individual speedskating gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, setting four Olympic records and one world record over a ridiculous variety of distances. By way of comparison, tell Bolt to win a gold in both the 200 and the 5,000 and see what he says.
Do you mean greatest Olympian as in an athlete who won golds at multiple Games, rose to the occasion again and again and exerted his or her dominance over long spans? (If so, you will leave Jesse Owens off the list, but so be it.) That’s Al Oerter with his four straight gold medals in discus, all with personal bests and Olympic records, including his epic feat in 1964 with an injured neck and torn rib cartilage. Unless it’s Carl Lewis, with his nine golds, including four straight in the long jump, or Sir Steven Redgrave with five straight golds in rowing.
Or do you find these definitions too limiting? If what you mean by greatest Olympic athlete ever is someone who displayed such a timeless virtuosity, a combination of agility, stamina, strength, speed, endurance and range that it’s never been matched, well, that’s Thorpe.
His performance in the 1912 Stockholm Games has the quality of footprints disappearing in the sand thanks to the International Olympic Committee. It stripped Thorpe of his victories in the now-obsolete pentathlon (five track and field events in a single day) and decathlon for committing the sin of professionalism, when it was discovered he played minor league baseball in Rocky Mount. What survives are some cool gray numbers marked by asterisks, and some half truths.
It’s hard to envision what Thorpe did, as long as you think of think of him as a long-dead ghost, or a quaint historical photo. When you think of him you have to think of someone alive. As alive as, say, Bolt. When you think of Thorpe, think of him that way. Or think of Bo Jackson, or Deion Sanders — only stronger.
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.