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Should the Remains of the Greatest Athlete in the World, Olympian Jim Thorpe, Return to Oklahoma?

Jim Thorpe
American footballer and athlete Jim Thorpe (1888 – 1953) who won two Gold Medals for the Pentathlon and Decathlon setting world records at both events at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

If family members of famed Olympian Jim Thorpe have their way, the remains of the Olympic medal  winner will be returned to Oklahoma. If one small town in Pennsylvania has its way, Jim Thorpe will stay right where he is.

I’ve been to Jim Thorpe, PA.  I have sympathy for the remaining Thorpe family. I’m going with PA on this one. Here’s Why:

Oklahoma didn’t want him.

When you visit Jim Thorpe, PA, one of the first things you see is the monument in the middle of town. It’s two big statues of him and his tomb.  There are historical markers that talk about his career and honor his achievements. The promotional material also talks about his playing professional sports, his Olympic career, his alcoholism, his failing health and eventual poverty. They even talk about the controversy when he was stripped of his Olympic medals for having played professional sports (a ruling that was posthumously overturned).  His tomb was built on native soil from Oklahoma and soil from the Olympic Stadium in Sweden where he had such success. You really want to know what is inspirational, though? The town, itself.

Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe competing for Carlisle Indian Industrial School at the US Olympic trials in Celtic Park, New York, 18th May 1912. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Mauch Chunk PA needed a new image – and needed a way to help it’s failing economy when the coal and railroad business started to dry up. Oklahoma had already rejected Jim Thorpe’s widow and said they would not honor the athlete after he died. They didn’t want the reminders of his early life in poverty or his later life with both poverty and alcohol.

Bottom line, Oklahoma didn’t want him. But one small town did.  And they have taken damn good care of him for 60 years.

So, when you get to Jim Thorpe, PA, you will see their honoring him as an American legend and one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Not to harbor on this point, but the town also had a name that wasn’t easy to pronounce.  Mauch Chunk means “Bear Mountain” in the language of the Lenape (Delaware) tribe.  Despite the name, it has an interesting history beyond the Jim Thorpe controversy.

You can visit a prison on one of the winding little streets that housed some of the Molly Maguires. They were tried and four were hanged. There are plenty of interesting ghost stories around town and a very quaint artisan community has grown up to support the tourism and the summer outdoor-enthusiasts that flock there to hike, cycle or paddle down the Lehigh River.

I understand the family wants the remains back – but I also think that Jim Thorpe, PA was willing to help bring back the hero that Jim Thorpe was when Oklahoma rejected him.

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