The unknown story of Jim Thorpe: one of the greatest injustices in Olympic sport
Jim Thorpeone of the greatest athletes in history and the victim of what many considered a centuries-old Olympic injustice, has been reinstated as the sole winner of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Thorpe, who excelled in a dozen sports , had dominated his two events at the Stockholm Games, but was stripped of his medals after it was discovered that he had earned a few dollars playing professional baseball before his Olympic career. American officials, in what historians considered a kind of racism against Thorpethat he was a Native American, and a fanatical devotion to the idea of amateurismwere among the loudest advocates of his disqualification.
Thorpe’s recognition by the International Olympic Committee, announced Friday, comes 40 years after it declared him the winner of both events. But reinstatement in 1982 was not enough for his supporters, who continued to campaign for Thorpe, an American icon especially revered in indigenous communities.
The athletes who were declared champions after Thorpe’s disqualification –Hugo Wieslanda Swede who came second in the decathlon, and Ferdinand Biéof Norway, who finished behind Thorpe in the pentathlon – expressed great reluctance to accept their gold medals after Thorpe was stripped of his victories in 1913. The International Olympic Committee said it had consulted the Olympic committees of Sweden and Norway and Wieslander’s surviving relatives, before reinstating Thorpe as sole champion of both events.
Bie and Wieslander will now be silver “co-medalists” in their events. The current silver and bronze medalists will not be unknown. “This is an exceptional and unique situation”said the IOC president, Thomas Bach. “This is an extraordinary gesture of fair play by the National Olympic Committees involved.”
The Swedish Olympic Committee responded to a request for comment saying: “The Swedish Olympic Committee would like to quote Swedish King Gustaf V, who said to Jim Thorpe at the medal ceremony: “Sir, you are the best athlete in the world.” . The Norwegian Olympic Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
The decision to name Thorpe as the sole winner of the decathlon and pentathlon was reported on Thursday by Indian Country Today, which noted that Olympic officials had quietly placed him in first place on the official Games website.
Restoring Thorpe’s medals has long been a cause for native american activists and of other nationalities, who in recent years have renewed petition campaigns and pressured the International Olympic Committee for change. Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma (one of the largest original tribes) and attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, and his exploits in multiple sports they are legendary in Native American circles.
“It is time to celebrate Jim Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic achievements and full recognition by the International Olympic Committee,” said Nedra Darling, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, whose father was a longtime friend of Thorpe’s. “It has been a long journey to get to this moment, but a very important journey for those of us who are part of the Bright Path Strong movement and across the Indian country”.
Bright Path Strong, a foundation bearing Thorpe’s indigenous name, has been among the leaders of efforts to restore Thorpe’s status. “We are pleased that, thanks to the great commitment of Bright Path Strong, a solution has been found,” said Bach.
Thorpe’s exploits on the football field were legendary: in 1911, Carlisle defeated Harvard thanks largely to Thorpe, who played as a midfielder (at least, what is considered a midfielder today) and scored four goals. .
Thorpe went to the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm to compete in the decathlon and another now-defunct track event, the pentathlon. He won both, received international acclaim and joined a parade of Olympic stars down Broadway in New York. The Times reported that Thorpe was the most acclaimedalong with Pat McDonald, a shot putter, who was a traffic cop in Times Square.
But the following year it was learned that Thorpe he had earned $25 a week playing baseball in minor leagues a few years earlier. Under the strict amateur rules of the time, the gold medals were withdrawn.
With his amateur status revoked, Thorpe began a major league baseball career, playing as an outfielder from 1913 to 1919 for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds, and Boston Braves. In 1920 he switched to professional football and played until the age of 41 on six teams, including the New York Giants. He is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. In 1950, he was voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll of sportswriters.
Thorpe died in 1953. His obituary in the New York Times called him “probably the greatest natural athlete that the world has seen in modern times.