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“During the 1912 Olympic tryouts, Jim threw the javelin standing still. He didn’t know you could have an unlimited run-up approach. He didn’t have any sophisticated training. His was that of a 6-year-old boy growing up in the Oklahoma Indian territory, going on 30-mile hunts with his father and catching horses.”

A teenage orphan-turned-track star at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Thorpe was introduced to football by storied coach Glenn “Pop” Warner. As a joke one day, Warner tossed Thorpe a football and told him to run through a dozen defenders as “tackle practice.”

Thorpe proceeded to do so. Twice.

“You’re supposed to let them tackle you, Jim!” Warner said.

“Nobody is going to tackle Jim,” Thorpe said.

He went on to become a two-time All-American. He led Carlisle to victories over Harvard and Army, and biographer Kate Buford believes that he may have been the first collegian to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season.

Standing 5-feet-10 and weighing 185 pounds, Thorpe competed in as many as 20 sports in his lifetime, including basketball, boxing, tennis and lacrosse. He even won an intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship.

Still, when Warner first suggested to Thorpe that he participate in the 1912 Olympics, the latter man had no idea the games existed.

No matter. Thorpe went on to win both the decathlon and pentathlon by large margins over favored European competitors — in fact, the 688-point gap between Thorpe and Swedish silver medalist Hugo Wieslander remains one of the largest in Olympic history.

The king of Sweden famously subsequently dubbed Thorpe “the world’s greatest athlete.” He became an international superstar, returning to a hero’s welcome in New York City and a congratulatory letter from President Taft.

“For the rest of our lives and beyond, whenever the Olympic decathlon winner is crowned, somewhere in the news story there’s an obligation to call him the world’s greatest athlete,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Jim Thorpe was the first.”

Transcending race

According to historian Adams, Thorpe’s cultural impact was no less significant.

“He played the same kind of role in refuting racial myths about indigenous people that [Olympic track and field star] Jesse Owens later did about African-Americans,” said Mr. Adams, whose initial curiosity about Thorpe’s Olympic exploits ultimately led to the “Best in the World” exhibit.

Thorpe wasn’t the strongest man in the world, but he was certainly one of the most graceful, unquestionably athletic, and he had a natural ability to pick things up,” Mr. Adams said. “At the time, there were a substantial number of people who said that indigenous people did not have that ability.”

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