"Path Lit by Lightning" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
David Maraniss’ definitive biography of Jim Thorpe chronicles the life of this superstar of the Sac and Fox Nation from his birth in Oklahoma in 1887, through boarding school, Olympic wins, and struggles with earning a living, to his death by a heart attack in his California trailer home in 1953.
The Dawes Act, passed in 1912, was legislation enacted to “assimilate Indians.” Within five years of its passage, the Sac and Fox Nation lost three fourths of their land. Another tactic used by the government to control the lives of indigenous people within U.S. borders was to send young Native Americans to boarding schools. Thorpe was sent to the Carlisle Indian and Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The institution’s purpose was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Its curriculum was designed to sap Indians’ awareness of their culture and language and to forbid traditional dress, and hairstyles to make the young people fit into mainstream white culture.
School officials may have had good intentions because until this time genocide was the main policy used for dealing with Indians, but these “progressive” efforts were misguided and cruelly enforced. Over the years, hundreds of students died from lack of medical care and mistreatment, but Thorpe survived in this context without losing his identity largely because of his athletic success at the school. His outstanding athleticism launched him into an international career in sports.
In 1912, Jim Thorpe received two gold medals in the Stockholm Olympic Games, winning the pentathlon and decathlon, the first Olympic medals won by a Native American. At the closing ceremony, King Gustav V of Sweden declared “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” However, these Olympic medals were rescinded when accusations surfaced that Thorpe had broken strict amateurism rules by earning $25 a week to play minor-league baseball during summers.
Maraniss details how these golds came to be revoked. Hundreds of college athletes were paid for playing summer baseball, including future president Dwight Eisenhower, but all of them used pseudonyms to avoid penalties, except Thorpe. He used his real name which appeared in North Carolina newspaper articles about the team he played on. When the scandal broke, coaches and officials lied, but Thorpe’s transgression was public knowledge and the IOC rule was enforced. A further injustice occurred because the complaint about Thorpe was filed by the International Olympic Committee after the IOC’s own 30-day deadline for contesting the legitimacy of the awards lapsed.
Thorpe was devastated and embarrassed by the revocation.
“He was a pretty stoic figure, but I would say that losing the medals and then losing his first son, his namesake, were the two most heartbreaking moments of his life,” Maraniss reports. (Thorpe’s 3-year-old son died of infantile paralysis four years after the revocation of the medals.)
“In one sense he remained the revered, great athlete but still he was screwed, and he thought that it was part of being an Indian—that’s why it happened. So it definitely had a profound effect on him. As he grew older, I think it became more and more important to him to try to get restoration of those medals. It didn't happen in his lifetime.”
Gifted at baseball, football, ice skating, and even ballroom dancing, Thorpe was voted The Associated Press Athlete of the Half Century in 1950. This recognition encouraged his family and other supporters to plead for the restoration of the gold medals claiming that denying them was racist and unjust. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee recognized Thorpe as a joint winner of both track events but did not restore his Olympic records. Finally, on July 15, 2022, the 110th anniversary of Thorpe winning the decathlon, the IOC declared Thorpe as the sole winner of both events.
Maraniss holds a mirror up to United States racism throughout this story. He writes:
“It says a lot of bad things about America but it's part of American history. I try to deal with it honestly. This country tried to wipe out the Indians and they didn't succeed, and society and life tried to wipe out Jim Thorpe but he survived.”
Thorpe's Native American name, Wa- Tho- Huk, means "path lit by great flash of lightning". This is the basis for the book’s title, and also a true reflection of the spirit of this Olympian. Maraniss’ thoroughly researched and well-written biography does justice to this renowned, ill-treated athlete. This book should appeal to a wide audience.
About the Author: David Maraniss is an associate editor at “The Washington Post” and a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes for journalism and is the author of 13 books, including biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Roberto Clemente, and Vince Lombardi.