(Reuters) - Jim Thorpe, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and formidable American football and baseball player, was one of the greatest U.S. athletes of all time but the public often failed to recognise him as one of their own during his lifetime.
Thorpe was born on May 28, 1888 (though some reports have him born on May 22 while others put the year as 1887) on Sac and Fox Nation land in Oklahoma to parents who were each half American Indian and half Caucasian.
American Indians were not considered U.S. citizens when Thorpe, already a two-time All-American running back under coach Pop Warner at Carlisle, won the right to compete on the U.S. Team at the 1912 Games in Stockholm.
At the Games he took gold in the pentathlon and then in the final event of the Games, the decathlon, set an Olympic record, leading King Gustav V of Sweden to call him “the greatest athlete in the world”.
Yet when Thorpe returned to the United States he was barred from some hotels and restaurants, especially in the South, while travelling with his teams because of his race.
“He dealt with adversity his whole life,” Justin Lenhart, museum curator for the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, told Reuters.
“Thorpe’s legacy is perseverance. He wasn’t a perfect man ... but he also accomplished a lot under some really tough circumstances.”
Despite the obstacles he faced in everyday life, Thorpe dazzled on whatever field he played.
In 1913, Thorpe signed with baseball’s New York Giants and would go on to play six MLB seasons, posting a career .252 batting average.
But his bigger impact came playing his favourite sport, American football.
He joined the Canton Bulldogs in 1915 and led them to three championships and was named an NFL All-Pro in 1923. He was later inducted into the Hall of Fame for both collegiate and professional football.
After his playing career, Thorpe struggled to find work during the Great Depression and ended up going to Hollywood, where he played bit parts in Westerns.
In Hollywood he fought for equal pay for American Indians in the entertainment industry and later helped those demanding a fair share of revenues derived from oil and gas production on their tribal lands.
Thorpe was later portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1951 film: Jim Thorpe – All-American.
Later in life Thorpe struggled financially and with alcoholism. He died in California in 1953 at age 65 of heart failure, leaving behind his third wife, Patricia.
He fathered eight children.
Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Rutherford