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Record set straight: Thorpe gets his gold medals (again)

After 110 years, Jim Thorpe is once again an Olympic gold medalist. (Wikimedia Commons)

Legendary athlete Jim Thorpe was the first Native American to win a gold medal in an Olympics. He won two – in the decathlon and pentathlon – in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, 110 years ago. But until now his official Olympic record has been a source of controversy.

On July 15, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reinstated Thorpe (Sac and Fox Tribe) as the sole champion in his events – after first being stripped of his medals and later being named a co-champion. It’s vindication for Thorpe’s family and scores of supporters who have advocated for the reinstatement for decades.

“A moment 110 years in the making, to finally hear the words officially spoken again, ‘Jim Thorpe is the sole winner of the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon.’ [It’s] a glorious time of celebration [for] all of his friends, family and supporters. Hooray!” Anita Thorpe, his granddaughter, said in a statement.

During his medal ceremony in 1912, King Gustav V of Sweden famously proclaimed Thorpe the “world’s greatest athlete.” Many still consider him to be the greatest all-around athlete in the history of modern sports. Thorpe also played baseball for the New York Giants and football for the Canton Bulldogs, where he won three championships.

But six months after his historic Olympic run, in 1913, 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 Olympic rules that were in force at the time.

The IOC stripped him of his medals, removed his name from the official record and never gave Thorpe due process. The gold medals were awarded to the respective silver medalists in the events, despite the fact that they refused the recognition.

Thorpe died in 1953 at 64.

In 1983, the IOC reinstated Thorpe to the Olympic record and presented his family with duplicate medals after decades of effort by supporters and after the Swedish Olympic rules for the 1912 Olympics were uncovered and legal action was threatened.

But supporters still had a point of contention – that the official Olympic record still listed Thorpe as a co-champion in his events, instead of champion.

The Native-led nonprofit Bright Path Strong helped keep the issue in the spotlight, something the IOC noted in its reinstatement of Thorpe. The organization’s name is inspired by Thorpe’s given name of “Wa-Tho-Huk,” which translates to “Bright Path.”

“We are so grateful this nearly 110-year-old injustice has finally been corrected, and there is no confusion about the most remarkable athlete in history,” Nedra Darling, Bright Path Strong cofounder, said in a statement.

Many tribes and Indian Country organizations worked to have Thorpe’s medals reinstated. Supporters included the Tuolumne Band of Me Wuk Indians, Chicken Ranch Rancheria Me-Wuk Indians of California, Tonto Apache Tribe, the Mohegan Tribe, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Sealaska Corp., National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund, National Native Boarding School Coalition, Indian Gaming Association, Native American Finance Officers Association and more.

“Jim Thorpe faced seemingly insurmountable odds on and off the field. He represented this country before it even recognized Native Americans as citizens but he never gave up,” Bright Path Strong board member Dennis Hendricks, said in a statement. “He was an inspiration then and he is an inspiration now. Today is yet another victory for this great hero.”

For more, go to brightpathstong.org.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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