Ohio Memory Olympians

Jim Thorpe clearing the high jump at track practice, ca. 1910.

With the 2012 Olympic Games wrapping up on Sunday, we wanted to take a moment to recognize the many Ohio athletes competing in London this summer, as well as the great Olympians of the past who can be found in the Ohio Memory digital collections!

Courtesy of Hiram College via Ohio Memory

First up, the 1904 Hiram College basketball team, who won the sport’s first gold medal in that year’s Olympic Games! Basketball was first played as a demonstration sport in the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri, which were held in conjunction with the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 (officially known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition). Originally planned for Chicago, the Olympics were moved to St. Louis to avoid competition for visitors. The Hiram College team won the opportunity to compete in the games by first winning the Ohio Basketball Championship. Unlike in modern basketball, Hiram, Wheaton College, and Latter-Day Saints University squared off on an outdoor court, where Wheaton players had to wear cleats for traction on the slippery field! Hiram defeated Wheaton College 25 to 20, and L.D.S.U. 25 to 18.

Jesse Owens clearing a hurdle at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Jesse Owens is another historic Olympian from Ohio’s past who remains one of the greatest track and field stars of all time. Born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, he moved with his family to Cleveland when he was eight years old. After being a star athlete in high school, Owens was recruited by Ohio State. Because of his race, he was not permitted to live on-campus with his track and field teammates, and often had to board and dine separately from them while traveling for competitions.

He was nonetheless one of the best athletes the school has ever known, and went on to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Adolf Hitler, who was then Chancellor of Germany, hoped to use the Olympics to prove that the “Aryan race” was superior to all others. Owens effectively dashed those dreams, winning four gold medals and setting or contributing to four Olympic records in the one hundred-meter dash, the two hundred-meter dash, the broad jump, and the four hundred-meter relay. He was the first American track and field athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympics, and by the end of the competition, even German fans were celebrating Owens’ incredible accomplishments.

Jim Thorpe (first row, second from left) with his Carlisle track teammates, ca. 1910.
Bronze bust of the king of Sweden, presented to Thorpe for his performance in the 1912 Olympics.

Ohio Memory also has a great selection of images related to Jim Thorpe, one of the most talented all-around athletes in history. Thorpe was born near Prague, Oklahoma, on May 28, 1888 to Hiram and Charlotte Thorpe. A descendent of Sac and Fox Indians, he attended the Carlisle Indian Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he became known as a standout athlete in football, as well as just about every other sport he attempted!

He was selected to compete in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, where he won gold medals in the decathlon and the pentathlon. He set records that stood for decades in many of the 15 events he competed in, and blew his competitors out of the water in events like the 1,500-meter run, which he won by five seconds–a huge margin by Olympic standards! Unfortunately, Thorpe’s medals (and his records) were stripped by the International Olympic Committee later than year when it came to light that he had briefly played minor-league baseball in the 1909 and 1910 seasons, which was in violation of the IOC’s now-defunct amateurism requirement.

In spite of this disappointment, Thorpe went on to play professional basketball, baseball and football, and led the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs to be unofficial world champions in 1916, 1917 and 1919. He was also the first president of the National Football League when it was founded in 1920. Although he faced significant personal and financial challenges after retiring from his athletic career, he is still considered by many to be the century’s greatest athlete. For a great read on Thorpe’s career and his Olympic legacy, check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine.

Who are you rooting for in this year’s Olympics? Maybe one day your favorite modern Ohio Olympians will appear in our Ohio Memory collections themselves!

Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!


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