Donald Dinnie: Scotland’s Jim Thorpe

by Thom Van Vleck

A classic photo of Donald Dinnie with a few of his awards.

In 2006 I visited Scotland and while there made a visit to the “Dinnie Stones” to take a crack at lifting them.  The stones have a become part of the legend of Donald Dinnie.  A legend that is long and complicated and not unlike the American sports legend, Jim Thorpe.  Both men seemed gifted to do just about anything they wanted to athletically.  They were strong, fast, and agile and could seemingly adapt to any sport in a quick manner.  In other words, they were ATHLETES!

Dinnie was born at Balnacraig, Birse, near Aboyne, Aberdeenshire in Scotland in 1837.  He competed in over 11,000 athletic competitions in a 50 year span.  Thorpe was born near Prague, Oklahoma in 1888 very near where my father was born and he and I share a birthday of May 28th and Thorpe likely competed in 1000’s of different athletic events in a career that lasted over two decades.  A strict comparison of these two athletes would be difficult.  I do know that Jim Thorpe and Donald Dinnie both threw many of the same implements, such as the 56lb Weight for Distance, the hammer, the shot, the javelin, and ran in many of the same types of distance events.  But in many ways it’s like comparing Muhammed Ali with Joe Louis….they weren’t at their best at the same time.

I like Dinnie because he’s a legendary figure, but was a real man that may have actually been able to live up to that legend.  Fittingly, he was born the son of a stone mason.  He won his first event when he was 16 and beat a strongman in a wrestling meet and won 1 pound sterling.  He had a reign as Scottish Champion from 1856 to 1876 and when his best track and field performances  are compared with the 1896  Athens Olympics (the first modern Olympics) he could possibly have won 7 Gold medals, a Silver, and a Bronze.  This would have indeed put him in a class with Thorpe!

Thorpe had a lengthy list of amazing wins and feats in basketball, football, track & field and baseball.  Dinnie won over 2000 hammer throwing contests, over 2000 wrestling matches, 200 weightlifting meets, and some 500  running and hurdling events.  I read that in 40 years he was undefeated in the caber toss in 1000’s of contests.

Another area they have in common is their images endure today and sell products!  Dinnie, while still alive, endorsed a soft drink in the United Kingdom called Iron Brew or today is know as Iron Bru.  His image is still regularly seen as is Thorpe’s.

Dinnie, like Thorpe, did barnstorming to earn money while displaying his athletic prowess.   Dinnie first toured the United States in 1897 and earned a small fortune doing it and was still touring New Zealand and Australia at age 60….and winning!  William Wallace is a legendary patriot, maybe the greatest patriot, of Scotland and when a statue was done of him, they used Dinnie as the body model as he was considered the perfect man.  Thorpe was studied extensively by Doctors at one point who were trying to figure out just why he was such a great athlete.

Finally, these two great athletes share a similar end.  During their day, they were often hates as much as they were loved.  Other athletes hated them because they often made them look bad and took all the prize money.  Thorpe earned a fortune in his lifetime but died broke.  Dinnie, it is said, earned what would be equal to 2.5 million dollars in today’s money, but also had to rely on charity at the end of his life.  I don’t think this takes away from the luster of their careers, indeed, to me it only adds to it.  These men lived big and stayed that way.  I read of a famous person who was suffering from Parkinson’s and was still working as hard as ever.  A reporter asked them, “Shouldn’t you rest more in your condition”?  The man looked at her and said, “Rest for what…..so I can die well rested”.  I think these men lived with that same sentiment, and I can respect that.

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