ashton eaton

Some of the most famous athletes in 20th century sport were the decathletes: Jim Thorpe, Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, CK Yang, Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn), and Daley Thompson.

Today, the sheen off the 10-event, 2-day competition known as the decathlon has dimmed. It’s a generalist’s competition in a day and age when specialists reign, which commonly means that kids growing up do not find it on offer in their schools.

That was true for young Ashton Eaton, who competed in football, basketball, running, soccer and wrestling in Mountain View High School in Oregon. A swift 400-meter runner and long jumper, Eaton did not generate much interest from the top universities. He decided to go to the University of Oregon, and focus on the decathlon. From that point on at the University of Oregon, Eaton became a perennial favorite in the decathlon, becoming the first to ever win three consecutive NCAA decathlon championships in the US.

While Eaton failed to make the US team for the Beijing Olympics, he not only qualified in 2012, but won gold at the London Games. Now he is seeking in Rio to be the third person to be crowned “Greatest Athlete in the World” at two consecutive Olympics.

Eaton is recovering from a hamstring injury so there were doubts. But in July, the world record holder won the US Olympic trials in the decathlon to qualify for Rio. And despite the injury, none of his biggest rivals have a personal best better than his results at the trials.

Is Ashton Eaton a safe bet to win gold at the Rio Olympics? Pretty safe.

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Duke Kahanamoku and Henry Fonda
Duke Kahanamoku with film star Henry Fonda (1905 – 1982) who is draped in leis. Fonda is in Hawaii for the filming of ‘Mister Roberts’.

Kahanamoku first achieved Olympic glory in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden, but because of the cancellation of the 1916 Olympic Games, Kahanamoku had to figure out how to remain an amateur for 8 years until he competed again at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

Only a few months after the 1912 Stockholm Games, gold medalist pentathlete and decathlete, Jim Thorpe, was stripped of his medals and amateur status because he took home pocket change for playing semi-pro baseball in 1909 and 1910.

Kahanamoku, who considered Thorpe a friend, was crestfallen, and was reported to have said, “Jimmy Thorpe was the greatest athlete there ever was. He could do everything. And what happened to him was a bad break for sports and for everyone.”

When Thorpe was stripped of his medals, Kahanamoku and his backers had to be cautious. So, according to author David Davis, when the citizens of Hawaii raised money for Duke Kahanamoku after his gold-medal winning performance at the 1912 Stockholm Games, they weren’t sure how to provide it to him lest they risk Kahanamoku losing his amateur status. And if Kahanamoku lost his amateur status, and could no longer compete in AAU events or the Olympics, then Kahanamoku’s ability to draw tourists and opportunities to Hawaii, it was thought, would diminish. Eventually, a house was bought by a trust company, and Kahanamoku was able to move into a new home. The trust was set up so that he could never re-sell the home. The flip side of the deal is that the powers that be in Hawaii probably kept this transaction under the AAU radar.

While it is possible that Kahanamoku received cash very quietly for appearances at exhibitions all over the world, as well as for low-key advertising campaigns in a pre-television, pre-internet world, Kahanamoku did not financially benefit from his immense celebrity while he was an athlete. This was true even after Kahanamoku had surrendered his amateur status and tried to make it in the world of film. His Hawaiian “otherness”, however, got him typecast as the quiet pacific islander surfer, or native American Indian chief. He was never able to rise to the easy heights of fellow swimmers, Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films, or Buster Crabbe in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers films.

Anita Stewart and Duke Kahanamoku
Anita Stewart and Duke Kahanamoku in what I think is the 1927 film Isle of Sunken Gold

Kahanamoku is credited with appearances in 14 feature films, including the WWII naval classic, Mr Roberts, with Henry Fonda and James Cagney. But one film that is not mentioned is The Beachcomber, a film made shortly after Kahanamoku’s triumph in Stockholm. It never got distributed in the US, as it was seen as a threat to Kahanamoku’s amateur status. Here is how David Davis explains it in Kahanmoku’s biography, Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku:

Before returning to Hawaii, Kahanamoku made his motion picture debut in The Beachcomber, shot on an unidentified beach in Southern California. The one-reel silent film was directed by its star, Hobart Bosworth, a pioneer in Hollywood’s nascent movie industry. (Bosworth also was a friend and business associate of the author Jack London.) Duke did not have to stretch much to play a native islander who swims out to rescue Bosworth’s character from drowning. Publicity shots showed him wearing nothing more than a sarong. Bosworth had to delay releasing the film, however, after it was discovered that “the champion might lose his right as an amateur if swimming for money,” according to Motion Picture News. It is unclear whether The Beachcomber was ever shown or distributed in the United States, although foreign audiences reportedly were able to view the stirring flick.

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

rings and nflSunday, February 7 is Super Bowl Sunday – half of America will be watching the Carolina Panthers battle the Denver Broncos for supremacy at the 50th iteration of this quintessential American experience, while the other half will enjoy comfortable seating at movie theaters, as well as restaurants not showing the game.

As you are aware, American football, the version with the oval, rugby-like ball, is not an Olympic sport. So unlike basketball, or soccer or tennis or ice hockey, there are not so many Olympians who have played in the NFL, let alone win a Super Bowl.

Irvin Bo Roberson was the silver medalist at the 1960 Rome Games in the long jump, and had a distinguished career as a wide receiver for several NFL teams. In fact, he is the only person to be an Olympic medalist, an NFL player, an Ivy Leaguer and a PhD, but he never went to the Super Bowl.jim thorpe card

The legendary Jim Thorpe, who was essentially brilliant at any sport he played, was the gold medalist for the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, and was actually the first president of the American Professional Football Association in 1922, so of course, never went to the Super Bowl.

In fact, there are only two people in the world who were Olympians, and who played in a Super Bowl.

Willie James Gault was on the US track and field team as a sprinter in 1980. Unfortunately, that was the year the US boycotted the Moscow Summer Games. Gault would go on to become a star wide receiver for the Chicago Bears and the Los Angeles Raiders, and was on the Bears team that won Super Bowl XX in 1986.

willie gault bears

Bullet Bob Hayes won two gold medals in the 100 meter and 4×100 relay at the 1964 Tokyo Games, and had a hall of fame career as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. In 1972, he became the first Olympian to win a Super Bowl, contributing with a 16-yard run and two catches for 23 yards in Super Bowl VI against the Miami Dolphons.

Michael D’Andrea Carter took the silver medal in the shot put at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. He was then drafted by the San Francisco 49ers where he played one of the more violent positions on the field, nose tackle, better than anyone else in the game. And he played on a 49ers team that won the Super Bowl three times, in 1985, 1989 and 1990. Carter is only the second person to have won an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl ring ever, let alone in the same year.

michael carter card

The Amazing Jim ThorpeIn a time of social media hyperbole, where lists tell us who or what is number 1, it may be hard to compare any athlete with James Francis “Jim” Thorpe, or as he was known by his Native American friends, Wa-Tho-Huk.

Jim Thorpe won gold in both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, which meansĀ he couldĀ run, jump and throw better than almost anyone else in the world.

And that’s not all.

He played baseball for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and the Boston Braves. He played basketball for the “World Famous Indians”, a travelling basketball team. And he played football for the Canton Bulldogs, which won championships in the American Professional Football Association, a precursor to the NFL.

Thorpe suffered from alcoholism, struggled in poverty after the Great Depression, and passed away broke in California. And that’s when his life really got interesting.

Thorpe was brought back to his birth place in Shawnee, Oklahoma, lying in state. Somehow, Thorpe’s third wife, Patricia, stole the body and shipped it to Pennsylvania. Neither Thorpe or his wife had any connection to Pennsylvania. But the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk smelled a business opportunity. They bought