Jim Thorpe, Man of Bronze

At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, Native-American athlete Jim Thorpe electrified the world by winning the gold medal for both the pentathlon and the decathlon.  Swedish King Gustav V spoke for the world when he said, You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world. I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.  

Thorpe was 24 years old at the time and his record for the decathlon would not be broken until two decades later. Returning to New York he was recognized as a national figure and honored with a ticker-tape parade.

His stature as an Olympic athlete was short-lived, however.  The Olympic committee unjustly stripped Thorpe of his gold medals in 1913 after it was learned that he had received some small payments for playing sport and thus was not a true “amateur.”  It should be noted that the Olympic committee violated its own regulations of the time when it ruled against Jim Thorpe. Much of this appears to have been instigated by his fellow teammate, Avery Brundage, who later went on to become president of the International Olympic Committee.  It was not until 1982 that the Olympic committee corrected its past wrong and restored Thorpe’s name to the record books.

Avery Brundage went on to be involved in the politics of the International Olympic Committee.  He was not without criticism. Roger Butterfield commented on Brundage in an article published in LIFE magazine June 14, 1948.

“Brundage became celebrated as a tyrant, snob, hypocrite, dictator and stuffed shirt, as well as just about the meanest man in the whole world of sports.”

It is possible racism played some part in the extreme reluctance to reinstate Thorpe who was of mixed Native-American, French, and Irish ancestry.  That was certainly not the case with the public who enthusiastically admired him. Playing professionally in both baseball and football, Jim Thorpe personified athletic competition from the time he entered professional sports in 1913 until he retired in 1928.   He was a superb athlete who weighed 190 lbs. and stood 6’1” tall.  He was gifted with extraordinary speed, stamina, and agility.  The public seized upon Jim Thorpe with remarkable fervor.

Thorpe finally retired from professional sports when he was 41 years old.  Thorpe was the first president of the American Professional Football Conference – an organization that later evolved into the National Football League.  In 1950 the Associated Press recognized him as the greatest male athlete of the half-century.  Later in 2001, the ABC television network’s popular show Wide World of Sports selected him as “Athlete of the Century.” 

As successful as his athletic career was, Jim Thorpe’s personal life was a tragedy.  He had problems with alcohol abuse and spent the last years of his life living in poverty.

In 1932, Street & Smith executive Henry Ralston along with Editor John Nanovic were cobbling together a character that would later electrify the pulp magazine field and become known as Doc Savage.  Many of the physical abilities of Clark Savage, Jr. would parallel those of Jim Thorpe.  Doc Savage burst upon the scene in “The Man of Bronze.”  He was described as a living bronze statue and his skin coloring was dark, dark, dark.  Readers are informed that Doc’s remarkable skin coloration comes from a permanent tan derived from long hours spent under the tropical sun.  Of course, this is pure malarkey as no tan is permanent and in fact Doc Savage himself comments on this subject in one of his later adventures, “Birds of Death” in October 1941. Doc Savage remarked thoughtfully, “It does not take long for a man to lose a tan in civilization.”

In the first adventure from March 1933, author Lester Dent sent Doc Savage to the remote reaches of the Central American republic of Hidalgo.  There Clark Savage, Jr. claimed a fabulous fortune in gold as his legacy from a Mayan tribe that had secluded themselves in the fastness of the tropical mountains.  The Mayan people are described as having handsome features and golden skin coloring.  Dent lays out a story pointing to Doc Savage’s mixed racial heritage.  In particular, he emphasizes the similarities between King Chaac’s features and those of Doc Savage, but he never directly states it as a fact.  Logically it could be reasonably assumed that Doc was some relation to the Mayans living in the “Valley of the Vanished.”  But this was all happening some 75 years ago, and the racial moirés of the country were not then what they are now. 

The first Doc Savage story, “The Man of Bronze,” was built largely on an outline created by Ralston and Nanovic.  Dent fleshed out that story, but Doc Savage’s outstanding physical abilities were not completely apparent until the next adventure. “The Land of Terror” was purely Dent’s doing and highlighted Doc Savage’s extraordinary athletic ability.  Doc easily jumps a fence with what readers are told in a new world’s record were he an athlete. 

Dent puts Doc Savage through a pulp version of the decathlon while tossing in parts of the modern pentathlon.  Doc runs faster than a horse; he fights with a sword; he hurls a pike; he tosses a spar; he swims a lake and then wounds the pilot of a plane with his expert pistol marksmanship; he uses a javelin.  The story explains that Were Doc Savage to become a professional athlete, there is no doubt in my mind but that he would be the wonder of all time.

A further comment in the fifth issue, “Pirate of the Pacific,” echoes the idea once again: One of the scientists at the banquet told me in entire seriousness that, were Savage to enter athletic competition, his name would leap to the headlines of every paper in the country. Any reader of the times would instantly associate Doc Savage’s fantastic athletic abilities with those of Jim Thorpe.  This allowed Street & Smith to capitalize on the popularity of the popular athlete in the form of the bronze-skinned Doc Savage without directly committing themselves to his ethnicity.

Lester Dent’s notebook states “This thing started December 10, 1932.”  When Doc Savage first meets King Chaac, we learn that Doc was to appear before him upon the passage of twenty years.  Going back twenty years from Dent’s start date brings us to 1912 – the very same year Jim Thorpe won the Pentathlon and the Decathlon and became the greatest athlete of the century.

Jim Thorpe’s story finally reached the big screen in 1951.  Burt Lancaster played the Native American athlete in “Jim Thorpe, All-American.”  The movie was renamed for release in the United Kingdom as “Jim Thorpe – Man of Bronze.”