Superhero Team Up: Jim Thorpe and Duke Kahanamoku

Batman vs Superman

In the film, Batman Vs Superman, two iconic comic book characters are brought face to face, setting up the inevitable debut of the Justice League from the DC universe. In the series, the Avengers, countless super-heroes of the Marvel universe have been brought together much to the delight of geeks and fanboys.

In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, there was a super-hero team up of sorts when Jim Thorpe and Duke Kahanamoku were selected for the US Olympic Team. Thorpe is considered one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known. At the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe won, amazingly, both the pentathlon and the decathlon.

Thorpe and Kahanamoku
Jim Thorpe(left) and Duke Kahanamoku (right) in 1912


Duke Kahanamoku of the then American territory of Hawaii helped popularize surfing beyond his Honolulu shores. At the 1912 Olympics, he won the 100-meter finals becoming the fastest swimmer in the world.

Like most super-heroes, Thorpe and Kahanamoku were the outsiders. The Native Indian Thorpe and the Hawaaiin Kahanamoku were relatively dark skinned, and were seen as exotic by mainstream America, as explained by David Davis in his wonderful biography of Kahanamoku called Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku. Davis shared a typical headline from the Detroit Free Press, which accompanied a picture of Kahamoku and a black athlete, Howard Drew: Two Dark-Skinned Athletes with American Team”

The head of the US Olympic squad, John Sullivan, was typical of the times – he believed in the superiority of white athletes, and male athletes. But as Davis explained, he was also practical and was compelled to include Kahanamoku and Thorpe on his team.

And Thorpe and Kahanamoku justified Sullivan’s decision as they brought in the medal. The King of Sweden, King Gustav V, was very impressed. Again, Davis provided these two stories.

When Thorpe approached the podium to receive his medals, King Gustav leaned down and told him, without understatement, “You, sir, are the most wonderful athlete in the world.” To this, Thorpe replied, “Thank you.”

After Kahanamoku’s victory in the 100-meter swimming finals, the King met with the Duke.

King Gustav indicated that he wanted to meet the victor. Kahanamoku was escorted to the royal box. The monarch congratulated “Duke de Crawlstroke,” and the two men shook hands. He received yet another ovation as he exited the dressing room, with the other competitors patting him on the back

Davis seems to indicate that Thorpe and Kahanamoku got along well with each other, perhaps mutually appreciating their abilities. “Thorpe’s wondrous athleticism was obvious to everyone. Kahanamoku asked him: ‘Jimmy, I’ve seen you run, jump, throw things and carry the ball. You do everything, so why don’t you swim, too?, Thorpe grinned. ‘Duke, I saved that for you to take care of. I saved that for you.'”

Thorpe vs Kahanamoku. I’d see that movie.