Native. American. The greatest injustice in sports history has now been corrected
The Olympic Games have never been without their controversies — nor is this a new phenomenon. In the 5th century BCE, the Games banned Sparta for violating a peace treaty, leading to one of the many engagements of the larger Peloponnesian Wars, as well as cheating — where they then had the temerity to win racing under a false flag. And, just as we see in the modern Games, there were attempts to bribe officials and pay off competitors to take a dive.
The venue that has hosted the Games has proven to be just as controversial as some of the events themselves. Whether it is Athens being under embargo in the 3rd Century BCE, or the most boycotted Games in history (1980 Moscow), nations have often pushed back on these soft power bonanzas that are often little more than another pawn in larger geopolitical aims: whether that is Hitler announcing the might of a rebuilt German state in 1936 to Beijing’s “Genocide Games” of 2022.
War, personal conflict, terrorist slaughter, even curses — the Olympics have seen it all.
But, just as the nations and city states and venues and competitions have seen more than their share of controversy, so too have the vast majority of the tens of thousands of individual athletes over the last 3000 years strove to embody the Olympic spirit of sport, fair play, amateurism, detente — and they have prevailed more often than not.
However, injustices still arise and have plagued the Games, with a seemingly new act of administrative malfeasance every two years. But nowhere is that case any truer than in the the 1912 Olympic Games, the single greatest athlete in modern sports history, and the single greatest injustice in sports history: Jim Thorpe being stripped of his gold medals.
Jim Thorpe was born in the then-Indian Country of the Oklahoma Territory. Like many Native Americans subject to the Reservation system, his Sac and Fox Tribe had no connection to the land where he would be born; rather, they were forced onto the windswept midden of Oklahoma en masse in the late 19th century, after a 200-year slow-rolling genocide. Indeed, when Jim Thorpe was born Wa-Tho-Huk — the Bright Path in 1887, the American frontier was still open. He was hardly an American, much less a US citizen. In fact, the US Supreme Court had only recognized Indians as constitutional human beings just eight years earlier, in 1879.
Still, this product of the High Plains displayed a remarkable aptitude for athletics. Like so many other promising Native students of his time, he was sent to the Carlisle Indian School (and later Haskell). The athletic powerhouse served a two-fold purpose: The first, was assimilation of the larger student population; the second was to flash the individual successes of the morally-defunct Indian School System.
It was at Carlisle and Haskell that Thorpe became not only the most dominant Native athlete in the nation, but the very best athlete in the country at the time. Period. He was a two-time football champion under Pop Warner, was the national all-around track and field champion, and for good measure set the national record in the gold standard of all Olympic events: the Decathlon. His Carlisle teams not only beat national power Army, they routed them, as Jim Thorpe became the first Native CFB All-American in history…and then did it three times.
Being broke and Indian in the US in 1909 was a bad combination when employment opportunities were scarce and the Reservation was hopeless. Having no other skills besides his athletic prowess, Thorpe played a handful of semiprofessional baseball games, earning $2 a contest — his total stake had been $35 over two years, when the team finally disbanded.
Having nowhere else to turn, Thorpe decided to try his hand at Olympics, and began training in 1910 and 1911. It would prove to be a wise choice. Thorpe dominated the national field in the Pentathlon in 1912, winning his first three events. The USOC had seen enough: It not only named Thorpe to the Pentathlon team; he was so good in the first five events, that the USOC cancelled Decathlon trials and named him as the US’s representative there as well.
But it would be on the international stage where Thorpe became a celebrity. Of the 15 events comprising the Pentagonal and Decathlon in the 1912 London Games, Thorpe won a record eight of them, and set individual records along the way that would take decades to fall.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, he could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat; the 220 in 21.8 seconds; the 440 in 51.8 seconds; the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35; the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds; and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet; put the shot 47 ft 9 in; throw the javelin 163 feet; and throw the discus 136 feet.
American Indian Jim Thorpe, Wa-Tho-Huk, the Bright Path to the Sac and Fox, won the gold in both events — with Decathlon winners generally considered to be the best athlete on Earth.
What did Thorpe do for an encore? Oh, not much — besides rush for almost 2000 yards in the NFL, make the NFL Hall of Fame, and be listed on the NFL’s Top 100 greatest players.
We wish that this were the end of a great story; however, it was not to be. Just a year later, some degenerate yellow journalist at a local Worcester, Mass newspaper reported on Thorpe’s amateur baseball career (a career in which he made a total of $1018 in 2022 inflation-adjusted dollars). This led to an investigation by the AAU and later the IOC. Thorpe had no idea he had broken any rules, and readily admitted that he played a few games in Winston-Salem.
That was enough, however, for the IOC to act: “ignorance is no excuse” was the frequent and snide refrain. In this dark era of racialized science-fueled-nationalism, a “redskin” from the New World besting Europe’s brightest could not stand. And, despite the IOC having a 30-day window to report infractions, they stripped Thorpe of his medals 15 months after the 1912 London games. It was a decision that not only wounded Thorpe for the rest of his life; it was one that even at the time, was decried as unfair and smacking of European racial chauvinism against our first Americans.
For the better part of the next seven decades, various groups would put pressure on the IOC, make diplomatic entreaties to the US, and launch petition drives to have Thorpe’s medals restored. Begrudgingly, the IOC proposed a milquetoast solution — and it determined that Thorpe could tie as a gold medalist in the two events that he had so thoroughly dominated (despite, for instance, Thorpe setting world records in four of the five Pentathlon events).
And for the better part of 40 years, that’s where the matter stood: Jim Thorpe. Co-Gold Medalist.
After years of lobbying, the IOC Executive Committee reinstated Thorpe in October 1982, but said he was the co-champion with Hugo Wieslander (decathlon) and Ferdinand Bie (pentathlon). On Thursday, he was restored as the sole champion.
“This is a most exceptional and unique situation,” IOC president Thomas Bach said. “It is addressed by an extraordinary gesture of fair play from the concerned National Olympic Committees.”
The reaction across Indian Country has been, as one would imagine, ecstatic:
“We are so grateful his nearly 110-year-old injustice has finally been corrected, and there is no confusion about the most remarkable athlete in history,” said Nedra Darling, the co-founder of Bright Path Strong, a group created to share Native American voices and a leading organization that fought for Thorpe — who died in 1953 — to regain his medals. She is also a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.
“Jim Thorpe is a hero across Indian Country, and he is an American hero,” she said. “He represented this country before it even recognized Native Americans as citizens, and he did so with humility and grace. Even after he was wronged by his coach, the American Athletic Union, and many others, he never gave in to bitterness and led with a spirit of generosity and kindness. I pray that Jim, his family, and our ancestors are celebrating that the truth has been respoken today, on this 110th anniversary of Jim being awarded his Olympic gold medals.”
Jim Thorpe passed away in 1953, the victim of poverty and alcoholism that affected so many Native Americans on the Rez, and which still does to this day. He did not live to see this day of vindication, and died a heartbroken man. But for once, just once, justice has been delayed, not denied.
A dozen years before he could legally be considered an American citizen, Jim Thorpe became the world’s best. Just one lifetime after the Supreme Court said he could be a man, that man died. And 70 years of bureaucratic inertia later, that man can now finally be what he is and always was.
Native. American. Champion.
You dig the Olympics or history stuff? Are you bored this offseason?
I also wrote a piece on Sequoyah, the founder of indigenous Native literacy. And one on Jesse Owens, the only other man with a legitimate claim to Thorpe’s title as the Greatest Ever. And I even opened the comments so you guys can go chat.
Hope you enjoyed this. Roll Tide.