By Michael Kaufman
So the snowboarding kid from New Hampshire gets sent home after sexually suggestive photographs appear on the Internet, while skier Julia Mancuso hawks her “Kiss My Tiara” lingerie line on her official Web site and Sports Illustrated posts 45 pictures of skier Lindsey Vonn posing in Vancouver in an array of skimpy bikinis. Granted, the two sexy skiers are alone in their respective photos and not involved in any simulated Lewinsky-like activity, but there is still something wrong with this picture…or rather, these pictures.
I am not defending Scotty Lago’s behavior here. But, as The New York Times reported, he seemed genuinely remorseful. “I’m sorry for the pictures,” he said. “I’m sorry to the American public that I offended. I was out celebrating. It happened so quick.” Unlike Mancuso and Vonn, he received no money for his appearance in the racy photos (nor did the young woman with him).
This is but one of the many contradictions that come to mind as the Winter Games continue this week. There is no denying the grace, skill, and courage of most of those world-class athletes assembled in Vancouver. It is a pleasure to watch them compete at this level in pursuit of excellence in their respective events. (And just as an aside, I am pleased to report that after watching many Olympic Games in my lifetime, I think I finally understand curling.)
But as I watched the men’s hockey game the other night between the United States and Canada I thought about another great U.S. Olympic athlete…not a hockey player, not even a winter Olympian. I thought about Jim Thorpe. That is because every man on the ice for both teams was a professional player from the National Hockey League. Even the referees were NHL professionals. The Olympics have been allowing professional athletes to compete for a while now, so it was no surprise. It all dates back to the late Cold War years and the International Olympic Committee’s response to complaints that the best athletes from the “Communist bloc” had an unfair advantage because they could compete as amateurs. Still, whenever I see professional athletes in the Olympics I think of Thorpe.
Jim Thorpe competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won the gold medal in the first modern Olympic decathlon with a score of 8,413 points (a record that would stand for nearly two decades). He also won gold in the pentathlon. He received a special prize for his decathlon performance from King Gustav V of Sweden, who reportedly told him, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe is said to have replied, “Thanks, King.”
He came home to a ticker-tape parade on Broadway but his celebration was short-lived. In 1913 several newspapers reported the damaging news that he had played professional baseball in 1909 and 1910 and was thus ineligible to compete as an amateur athlete. He played for Rocky Mount in the Eastern Carolina League, where he was paid as little as $2 per game as a semi-pro. In a letter to Edward Sullivan, secretary of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Thorpe said he was unaware that playing semi-pro baseball would affect his amateur eligibility. “I hope I will be partially excused because I was just an Indian schoolboy and did not know about such things,” he wrote. “In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong because I knew I was doing what several other college men had done, except they did not use their own names.”
Unmoved, the AAU retroactively withdrew his amateur status and requested that the IOC do likewise. Later that year the IOC voted unanimously to strip Thorpe of all his Olympic titles, medals, and awards, and declared him a (gasp) professional.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” said Avery Brundage, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and later the IOC. Ironically, Brundage was Thorpe’s Olympic teammate in 1912. But he went on to become a Nazi sympathizer who as late as 1971 claimed that the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin (often called the “Hitler Olympics”) were “the finest in modern history… I will accept no dispute over that fact.”
It was not until 1983, 30 years after the death of Jim Thorpe and eight years after the death of Avery Brundage, that the IOC returned Thorpe’s Olympic medals to his name.
Perhaps next time you see professional athletes competing in the Olympics, you too will think of Jim Thorpe.
Michael can be reached at Michael@zestoforange.com.