WSAZ | West Virginia, Kentucky, & Ohio | Sports

Olympics Debate about Who's Greater: Michael Phelps or Jim Thorpe?

By: Randy Yohe Email
By: Randy Yohe Email

FIREBRICK, Ky. (WSAZ) -- After Michael Phelps’ medal record -- from break rooms to board rooms to sports talk radio -- the debate is on.

Who's the greatest Olympic athlete?

Many in our region pick the phenomenon from the 1912 Olympic Games -- the legendary Jim Thorpe.

The Native American sports superstar had ties to our area, and WSAZ.com’s Randy Yohe shows us some newly found Thorpe memorabilia. He weighs in on Olympic greatness.

Talk about a superstar spread -- John Carpenter from tiny Firebrick, Ky., is the man Ripley’s Believe It or Not calls the world's largest private sports collector.

Carpenter says his already robust Jim Thorpe wing recently grew in stature by leaps and bounds.

“It's because of the helmet that came from Mary and Fred Johnson of Minford, Ohio,” he said.

Carpenter says Thorpe worked and stayed with the Johnsons during his one-year stint with the semi-pro Portsmouth Shoe Steels. The Johnsons' grandson gave what Carpenter says is a near priceless helmet Thorpe wore, maybe for years, then gave away as a parting memento.

And Mary Johnson took a 1927 box camera picture of Thorpe hunting in Minford - with one of his prized Airedales.

But before his stellar career in pro and college football, Thorpe was a track and field phenomenon -- with many sports historians calling him the greatest Olympian athlete ever.

In Thorpe’s epic gold medal performances in 15 events that made up the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 summer games, he crushed the field. Thorpe set records that stood for decades.

He studied technique and was a chiseled specimen -- long before athletes looked cut.

Can you compare Michael Phelps swimming medal record to Jim Thorpe’s track and field glory?

We went to the SOMC Life Fitness Center in Portsmouth to get some admittedly biased but well informed onions on who's the best. Those we spoke with leaned toward Thorpe.

Thorpe went on to play pro football baseball and basketball. He was an athletic marvel whose amateur feats embody the Olympic motto -- "faster, higher, stronger" -- both then and now.

On the second day of his Olympic events, Thorpe’s track shoes came up missing. His coach, the also legendary Pop Warner, put together a mismatched pair, which Thorpe wore as he blistered the field in the hurdles, high jump and 1,500-meter run.

Thorpe’s Olympic victories were reinstated in 1982.


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