It’s been 108 years since the legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe competed in the 1912 summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.
But the official record of his Olympic excellence remains controversial to this day. However, the organization behind a new initiative and forthcoming movie is working to finally put the issue to rest.
Thorpe, born Wa-Tho-Huk (translated Brightpath), was of the Thunder Clan of the Sac and Fox Tribe.
He competed for the U.S. at a time when Native Americans weren’t even recognized as American citizens.
Thorpe broke barriers as the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal – he’d win two – one each in the pentathlon and decathlon.
During the medal ceremony, King Gustav V of Sweden famously proclaimed him the “World’s Greatest Athlete.” He is considered by many to be, perhaps, the greatest all-around athlete in the history of modern sports.
Thorpe excelled in many sports and won scores of awards during his playing years. Professionally, he played baseball for the New York Giants and football for the Canton Bulldogs where he won three championships.
In 1920, he became a founding member and the first president of the National Football League. But six months after his historic Olympic run, reports surfaced that Thorpe had been paid room and board while playing in a minor league baseball division years before.
It was considered a violation of the rules of amateurism that were in force at the time.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped him of his medals, removed his name from the official record and never gave Thorpe due process.
The IOC awarded the gold medals to the respective silver medalists, despite the fact that both of those atheletes refused official recognition.
Thorpe died in 1953 at 64.
It wasn’t until 1983 that the IOC reinstated Thorpe to the Olympic record and presented his family with duplicate medals. The event came after decades of effort by supporters and after the Swedish Olympic rules for the 1912 Games were uncovered and legal action threatened.
But supporters still have a point of contention – that the official Olympic record still lists Thorpe as a co-champion in his events, instead of champion.
‘Take Back What Was Stolen’
The group Bright Path Strong has recently launched an initiative to have that record corrected – called “Take Back What Was Stolen.”
The initiative consists of an online petition calling on the IOC to restore the record of Thorpe as the sole champion in the pentathlon and decathlon events of 1912.
As of press time, more than 56,000 people had signed it. The organization has a goal of 100,000 signatures.
The IOC has previously issued a statement about the Thorpe controversy.
“The story of the personal achievements and the difficulties faced by Thorpe during his life is a source of unquestionable inspiration in itself for current and future generations, which cannot be increased by retroactively adjusting the ranking of the other athletes,” the statement read in part.
Bright Path organizers said the reason for the most current push is to remind people that Native Americans have been “invariably impacted by the ever-climbing barriers and setbacks of racism in the U.S., and the world of sports is no different.”
“From more than a decade in government run boarding schools where every vestige of his identity and culture were attempted to be taken from him, to travel accommodations far inferior to his white Olympic teammates, to having his track shoes stolen minutes before the decathlon’s final race, to racist depictions in media downplaying his athletic achievements, Jim Thorpe had to overcome one racially motivated trial after another – and still managed to break world records,” the organizers said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Bright Path Strong has also teamed up with Pictureworks Entertainment and an alliance of Native American tribes to produce a motion picture about Thorpe’s life called “Bright Path.”
It is expected to be in production by mid-2021.
Thorpe is expected to be played by Martin Sensmeier of the Tlingit & KoyukonAthabascan Tribes. It would mark the first time Thorpe would be portrayed by a Native American in a feature film.
Of the many Native Americans working on the movie is Sterlin Harjo of the
Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, who is one of the movie’s scriptwriters.
In addition, there are some powerful voices behind the initiative to have Thorpe’s record corrected. It includes the National Congress of American Indians and Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, who is cochair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.
Last November, during Native American Heritage Month, Haaland introduced a House resolution recognizing Thorpe’s achievements Thorpe and requesting the record be corrected.
The resolution was supported by 20 other original cosponsors in the House. “Anyone who represented our country in the Olympics is an American hero, especially those that delivered two gold medals to the United States,” Haaland said in a statement.
“These heroic individuals should be recognized and honored, but inherent biases stole that from Jim Thorpe because he was Native American.” NCAI president Fawn Sharp said in a statement that to keep Thorpe’s record uncorrected is to “continue the erasure of Native people.”
For more information on the initiative and to sign the petition, go to brightpathstong. com.