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Last on

Wed 4 Jul 2012 11:00 BBC Radio 4

Duration:
28 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 04 July 2012

This programme explores the sad and controversial life of Jim Thorpe - the American Indian who was the star of the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where the Swedish King famously told him 'Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world'.

Thorpe had grown up on the Sac and Fox Indian reservation in Oklahoma and then, as a teenager, was sent 1500 miles away to a boarding school in Pennsylvania whose purpose was to 'civilise' Indian children by eradicating their culture. Its motto was 'Kill the Indian and save the man'. The pupils were forced to wear military uniforms, have short hair, and were punished if they spoke their own languages. 'The last phase of the Indian wars was fought in the classroom', says one contributor.

Thorpe was saved by sport and became the school's great star at both athletics and American football. He's often described as the 'first international sporting superstar'. But in 1913 it came out that he had been paid a few dollars to play minor-league baseball and the elite amateurs who ran US athletics rushed to condemn him as a professional. He was summarily stripped of his medals. But the public were on his side and his status in America is that of a popular hero victimised by those in power.

He went on to become the first great professional football player, but he could never cope with fame and died in near poverty in 1953. His widow arranged for him to be buried in a small town in Pennsylvania which offered to build a memorial to him. They town even changed its name to 'Jim Thorpe', but his Indian tribe are pursuing a legal battle to have his remains returned to Oklahoma.

Producer: Mark Whitaker
A Square Dog Radio Production for BBC Radio 4.

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