Jim Thorpe, one of history’s greatest athletes and a victim of what many saw as a centuries-old Olympic injustice, was restored as the sole winner of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games.
Thorpe, who had excelled in a dozen or more sports, had dominated both of his events at the 1912 Stockholm Games but was stripped of his medals after it was revealed he was briefly making a few bucks from professional baseball before his Olympic career would have. American officials were among the most vocal supporters of his disqualification, in what historians saw as a mixture of racism against Thorpe, who was a Native American, and a fanatical devotion to the idea of amateurism.
The International Olympic Committee’s recognition of Thorpe, due to be announced on Friday, comes 40 years after it restored him as co-winner of both events. But the 1982 restoration wasn’t enough for his supporters, who continued to champion Thorpe, an American icon particularly revered in Native American communities.
The athletes who were declared champions by the IOC – Hugo Wieslander, a Swede who finished second in the decathlon, and Ferdinand Bie of 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 IOC said it consulted both Sweden, Wieslander’s surviving family members and Norway’s Olympic Committees before reinstating Thorpe as sole champion of both events.
“This is an extremely extraordinary and unique situation,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “It is being addressed with an extraordinary gesture of fair play by the National Olympic Committees concerned.”
The decision to name Thorpe the sole winner of the decathlon and pentathlon was reported Thursday by Indian Country Today, which noted that Olympic officials had quietly put him at the top of the Games’ official website.
The restoration of Thorpe’s medals has long been a concern for Native American and other activists, who have renewed petitions and lobbying with the IOC for the change in recent years. Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma and attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, and his achievements in several sports are legendary in Native American circles.
“Does there be half justice?” asked Nedra Darling, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, whose father was a longtime friend of Thorpe’s, in 2020. “It’s outrageous that the records weren’t corrected in 1982.”
Bright Path Strong, a foundation named after Thorpe’s indigenous name, has spearheaded efforts to restore Thorpe’s status.
“We appreciate that thanks to Bright Path Strong’s great commitment, a solution could be found,” said Bach.
Thorpe’s heroic deeds on the football field were legendary: in 1911, Carlisle angered Harvard largely thanks to Thorpe, who played halfback and also scored four field goals.
Thorpe made his way to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics to compete in the decathlon and another now-defunct track competition, the pentathlon. He won both, received international acclaim and took part in a confetti parade for Olympic stars on Broadway in New York. The Times reported that Thorpe received the most cheers alongside Pat McDonald, a shot putter who was a Times Square traffic cop.
But the next year, it turned out that Thorpe had been making $25 a week a few years earlier playing minor league baseball. Under the strict amateur rules of the era, he was stripped of his gold medals.
His amateur status was revoked, Thorpe began a major league baseball career, playing outfield for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves from 1913-1919. Remarkably, he turned professional football in 1920 and played on six teams, including the New York Giants, by the time he was 41.
Thorpe died in 1953. His obituary in The New York Times called him “probably the greatest natural athlete the world has seen in modern times.”