Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe

From the New York Times review by Keith Olbermann of the book by David Maraniss titled “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe”:

Forty summers ago, a man wearing a tracksuit stepped out onto Fifth Avenue to celebrate his 90th birthday by running down the sidewalk in front of the Guggenheim Museum. He was there to publicize the New York City Marathon because in those days the New York City Marathon still needed the help. But, as nearly always happened to Abel Kiviat, the talk quickly turned to Jim Thorpe because there is a convincing argument to be made that Thorpe was the greatest athlete of all time. And 70 years earlier, Abel Kiviat had been Jim Thorpe’s roommate at the 1912 Olympics.

“Thorpe!” Kiviat’s eyes sparkled when he said the name. “What you could never know is: It wasn’t just he was the greatest athlete. Greatest runner. Greatest jumper. Greatest hurdler. Greatest football player. Played in the World Series. He won trophies for ballroom dancing! But see he could watch you do whatever you did best, and then he could do it better.” He tapped the CNN flag on my microphone. “He could take this out of your hand and five minutes from now, he’d be better at it than you are.”

In his exhaustively researched new biography of Thorpe, David Maraniss calmly lets witnesses like Kiviat express the eternal astonishment about how well Thorpe did seemingly everything, and how beautifully he did it. A 22-year-old football opponent from the Army team named Dwight Eisenhower confirming Kiviat: “He could do everything anybody else could do and do it better”; an anonymous New York Times reporter from Nov. 10, 1912: “At times the game itself was almost forgotten while the spectators gazed on Thorpe, the individual, to wonder at his prowess”; the poet Marianne Moore, who, in an impossible coincidence, was one of Thorpe’s college instructors: “Equilibrium with no strictures, but crouched in the lineup for football he was the epitome of concentration, wary, with an effect of plenty in reserve.”

But Maraniss’s choice of book title is itself an indication that his story of Thorpe’s life is as much about sadness and exploitation as it is about athletic perfection. Of what are at least four translations of Thorpe’s Sac and Fox name, Maraniss chose “Path Lit by Lightning” rather than the more familiarly used “Bright Path.” Lightning is not merely a metaphor for athletic speed or power. When it illuminates it may do so for only a moment before plunging everything back into darkness. And it can also kill.

The author — who has written biographies of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi — calmly takes us beyond the brilliance of Thorpe’s early football and track success at the Carlisle “Indian Industrial School” by calling the place what it really was: a forced assimilation camp. The infamous Gen. Philip Sheridan asserted, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” but it was Carlisle’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt, who was thought enlightened and generous because he responded: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” As Thorpe brought Carlisle so much sports renown that youth football in this country would be named after its coach Pop Warner, Maraniss chillingly reminds us that “186 students from 50 different Indian nations died there and were buried in a haunting campus cemetery behind the athletic field grandstands.”

Maraniss elegantly records Thorpe’s still-unbelievable domination of the 1912 Olympics, and contextualizes it by reminding us that it took place between his 1911 and 1912 college football seasons, which today could have won Thorpe back-to-back Heisman Trophies. But he also emphasizes that in the same calendar year that Thorpe’s gridiron success was laying the ground for professional football in this country and his pentathlon gold medal was earned with a score three times better than the runner-up’s, he was not permitted to become a citizen of the United States.

Of the greatest injustice of Thorpe’s life, the stripping of his 1912 Olympic medals because he had previously played professional minor league baseball, Maraniss offers fresh and infuriating research. He proves that all of the American sports officials who rushed to throw Thorpe under the bus when the story broke in 1913 knew damned well — and knew as it happened in 1909 and 1910 — that Thorpe had ceased to be an amateur. He also confirms that one of Thorpe’s purported defenders, Pop Warner, had paid bonuses to Thorpe and his other Carlisle football players as recently as 1908.

But Maraniss’s greatest contribution to the factual record of a transcendent athlete is his account of the years after Thorpe’s glory. From 1923 almost to his death 30 years later, when Carlisle and the Olympics and his role as the founding president and superstar of what is now the National Football League were memories, Jim Thorpe was — in Maraniss’s gut-wrenching phrase — “the athletic migrant worker.”

He made cameos with N.F.L. teams as late as the age of 41, was the player-coach of a barnstorming “World Famous Indians” basketball team, was the player-coach of a similar football squad, was the player-manager of a traveling baseball team, was the face of a “Grand Continental Footrace” nicknamed the Bunion Derby. He appeared as an extra in dozens of movies including “White Heat” and “Meet John Doe,” was exploited by a dozen shady promoters and con men who often left him penniless, and he made endless, countless, ceaseless personal appearances in the desperate effort to make a living out of being Jim Thorpe. Through three marriages, several heart attacks and cancer, he never once had steady ground beneath his feet. In the last 200 excruciating pages, the Thorpe that Maraniss follows is less the mythological athlete and more a real-life Sisyphus.

Even death would not free Thorpe from this ordeal. The last of his three wives — in what Maraniss decisively shows was a cross between a final publicity grab and a full-fledged grift — effectively spirited away Thorpe’s body hours before its intended burial in sacred ground in his native Oklahoma, and sold it to two small towns that were willing to merge and adopt as their new name “Jim Thorpe, Pa.” There are many in sports who believe that this macabre ending was righted a long time ago, but sadly Maraniss has to dispel this by confirming that the court ruling sending Thorpe’s remains home was overturned on appeal. So too must he disillusion the reader of the canard that the International Olympic Committee long ago corrected its heresies and sent Thorpe’s gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon back to him. The rescinded originals having been lost, the awards given to Thorpe’s descendants are modern facsimiles, and the Olympic record books did not designate Thorpe as the sole gold medalist until literally just last month.

And yet for all this, Maraniss continually yet gently returns to an affirmation. He insists that taken as a whole, Jim Thorpe’s story is not one of prejudice, nor the hypocrisy of others, nor even of the superstar who doesn’t fulfill Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.” The author emphasizes that whatever life took from him, Thorpe persisted and trained and worked and learned and succeeded to the point that he was the landslide winner of the 1950 Associated Press poll of experts who chose the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century. Given the precision with which Maraniss measures the almost unbearable weight of the odds against Thorpe, the reader begins to question if the qualifiers were actually unnecessary, and if Thorpe isn’t simply the greatest athlete — full stop.

Keith Olbermann hosts iHeart’s daily podcast “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

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