There is a movement afoot to correct a century-plus wrong in the sports world. Jim Thorpe, the world’s greatest athlete at the time and a Native American, was stripped of his gold medals in the 1912 Olympics in the decathalon and pentathlon. At the time, those two events were considered the most important in the Olympics and the winner of the decathalon was called “The World’s Greatest Athlete” due to their ability to show prowess in ten very different events. No athlete before or since has won both events. Thorpe blew the field away, earning significantly more points than runners up Hugo Wieslander of Sweden (decathalon) and Ferdinand Bie of Norway (pentathalon). Though he beat them handily, those men – over their strong objections – were listed as co-winners with Thorpe and given the gold medals. The many records he set were also removed from the books.
He was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation from the Oklahoma frontier, orphaned as a teenager and raised as a ward of government schools. He was quiet, humble, and excelled at every sport. When King Gustaf V of Sweden placed two gold medals around Thorpe’s neck for winning the Olympic pentathlon and decathlon and pronounced him the greatest athlete in the world, he famously muttered, “Thanks,” and avoided social invitations to celebrate at a succession of hotel bars. “I didn’t wish to be gazed upon as a curiosity,” he said. He was a immediate sensation, and given a ticker tape parade down Broadway.
But Thorpe’s medals were then taken away after it was revealed that a few years before the Olympics Thorpe had been given $25 a week to cover expenses while playing minor league baseball. At that time, amateurism was still very important to the Olympics, though now of course, professional multi-millionaires play in Olympic tennis, track, basketball and hockey. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympic’s governing body, voted to give Thorpe his gold medals posthumously, but did not remove the others’ names from the list of Olympic champions. This only occurred because of a lucky discovery.
Prior to 1982, and for the 100 years that various folks have tried to correct this manifest injustice, the IOC had stated that there were no rules or time limits as to when such a stripping of titles could occur; it was purportedly entirely up to the IOC’s discretion. But then in 1982, Florence Ridlon, advocating for Thorpe, searched the Library of Congress and actually found the 1912 rules stuck between two bookcases. The rules said that objections as to an athlete’s amateur status must be made within 30 days of their performance at the Olympics. The evidence against Thorpe was not revealed until more than 6 months after his Olympic wins. Therefore, the IOC had no legal basis in 1912 to remove his medals or titles.
The American member of the IOC, Anita deFranz, has just asked the IOC to remove the names of Wieslander and Bie from the record books and list Thorpe as the rightful sole winner of the 1912 gold medal in decathalon and pentathalon. This would give Jim Thorpe and his family the full measure of justice and recognition he rightfully deserves. Interestingly (or perhaps due to karma) the families of the false winners would not have to give the medals back as Wieslander’s medal was stolen from a museum in the 1950s and Bie also lost his. Who misplaces a gold medal? and Who would allow his medal top be in a museum when he didn’t earn it?
In 6th grade, I did a project on Thorpe and have been in awe of his career and the injustice done against him. In 1912, the American Olympic Committee supported taking the medals away, in fact they were among the biggest proponents of the action. Much of the rhetoric and journalism surrounding the action at the time smacked of racism against Native Americans. It was still an ugly time in American history in that regard.
As we know from wrongful conviction cases, correcting an injustice long after it occurred does not restore what was lost. But that does not mean we don’t undertake to correct it. Thorpe went on to have a very successful professional career in both baseball and football (including stints with the NY Giants in both sports). But the record books must be corrected and Thorpe restored to his rightful place in the Olympic pantheon.
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