Looking at pictures of Jim Thorpe online, he looks to be nothing like the American athletes competing in this summer’s Olympics. The checker board of images that appear on Google make that obvious. First of all, Thorpe’s heritage shows on his face. The blood of Sac-Fox Indian, Potowatomi and Kickapoo is written on his firm chin, his wide nose, and the down turn of his dark eyes, which held a near childishness well into his old age. Second of all, every other picture shows Thorpe playing a different sport. There he is throwing a discus. Here he is with a baseball bat in hand. Scroll down and see his body frozen in motion after kicking a field goal. Thorpe was a Native American who not only won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon (eventually having them revoked) at the 1912 Olympics but also played every major U.S. sport, and well, too. I’m unaware of any athlete like that competing under the American flag this summer.
I’m thinking of Thorpe now because of a conversation I had Friday night with my friend Al. He was waiting for me near Chinatown, in a bar called North Star Café. Running late, I reluctantly jumped into the cable car that slides up Powell Street. For San Francisco’s tourists, the cable cars are a warm memory. I find them to be more like moving refrigerators. They cost three times as much as a city bus and even when they are stuffed with people the chill from exposure to the foggy elements sneaks under every layer of clothing. But Al was up that way. The cable car was the fastest root.
When I finally climbed onto a bar stool next to him, Al looked at his phone to be sure I was late, then slid a warm beer my way. On one television, the Giants were about to lose their series opener to the Dodgers. Hanley Ramirez had just sailed one into left center as easily as the wind lifts a white cap up out of the cool bay water. This shifted the bar’s attention to the other television—the one showing the Parade of Nations from the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Country after country poured onto the track in Wembley Stadium, waving their flags, everyone smiling like the first day of school. Each nation seemed to have a different eye-catching accessory. The Netherlands wore enormous orange tulips as boutonnieres. The South Koreans wore sharp fedoras. The Americans carried cellphones.
“I don’t think I could care less about the Olympics,” Al casually said as he fooled with the half full glass in front of him, twisting it in a circle and what not. I thought it a strange thing to say so casually, especially since the whole bar was, by this point, chanting “U-S-A, all-the-way!” After the screen cut to a grinning Kobe Bryant, someone tried leading the bar in “America the Beautiful,” but failed.
“You better keep it down,” I said. “After the Giants were put down so coldly, this parade is all anyone in here has left for tonight. If they hear a contrarian like you bad-mouthing our Olympians, they’ll pull you into the alley and leave you there to rot like yesterday’s chow mein.”
Al urged me to let him explain, so I listened to him explain. “Like all those athletes we send over there,” he said, “they are all professionals. Kobe Bryant has only one job to do in this world. Put a basketball in a basketball hoop.
“He’s not an ‘athlete,’ ” Al said, adding those aggravating air quotes, “He is a basketball player. I bet you he couldn't row a canoe.”
“What are you suggesting?” I asked. “Are you suggesting that the Olympics as we know it now should be replaced by some stripped down kind of iron man competition?”
“If we want to know who the world’s best athlete is, yeah I guess I am.”
I sat there a moment, twisting the half-empty glass on the table before me in a circle. I first thought that my friend Al was pretty arrogant to be such a public hater of all sports, and carry his indifference to them like a freeing passport, then proclaim that the universe’s oldest sporting event is a sham, and how he could change it for the better.
I quietly sipped my beer thinking; On the other hand, maybe what he suggested is only the next logical step in Olympic evolution. Amateurism was once the rule of competition, but that was recently thrown away for the big ad revenue that comes with professional athletes.
Moving to an iron man competition, where each nation trains and sends one athlete to compete in every event, to see which nation houses the world’s best all-around athlete, is really just a hyper professionalism.
“Is that what you mean?” I asked Al.
“Right, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” he said.
I smiled at him. “What you are talking about is Jim Thorpe,” I said.
“Maybe,” Al said, “I don’t know what that is.”