He was born in Prague, Oklahoma.
Thorpe, a Sac Indian (his Sac name was Wa-Tho-Huk or Bright Path), participated in many sports, playing American football and baseball, before he competed in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. There he won both the pentathlon and decathlon events, earning him a compliment from the Swedish king: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."
In 1913, however, Thorpe had to return his medals, as it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball in 1909 and 1910, which was against the - then very strict - amateurism rules. However, the medals were restored again in 1982, though Thorpe had died almost 30 years prior. On January 18, 1983 replicas of his medals were presented to his family.
After he returned his medals, Thorpe also played professional football and baseball.
He was named best athlete for the first half of the 1900's.