In 1913, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) controversially voted to strip Native American athlete Jim Thorpe of his 1912 Olympic titles. Finally, after more than a century of deliberation, officials are restoring his name to the record books.
Vindication for Jim Thorpe finally arrived on July 15, 2022 — 110 years to the day that he took gold in the Olympic decathlon.
Friday’s win marks the end of a successful two-year campaign by several groups. The Doug Williams Center (DWC), which advocates for inclusion and social justice in sports, and Bright Path Strong, a nonprofit focused on Thorpe’s reinstatement, spearheaded the initiative. Part of their strategy included an online petition that yielded 75,847 signatures and ultimately got the IOC’s attention.
“Despite some records standing unbroken for more than 60 years, the official record has still listed Jim as a ‘co-champion’ — until now,” Bright Path Strong stated following the decision. “The IOC announced today that Jim will again be listed as the first place winner of his events.”
For its part, the IOC declared it “will henceforth display the name of Jim Thorpe as the sole gold medallist in pentathlon and decathlon at the Olympic Games Stockholm 1912.”
Jim Thorpe & Olympic Controversy
Thorpe was born in Oklahoma, a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation. He found marked success in college sports and eventually entered the pro leagues in not one but three sports: football, baseball, and basketball. In 1963, he became the first Indigenous athlete to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But before all that, he dominated the competition at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics. There, Thorpe took gold in the decathlon and pentathlon, leading Sweden’s King Gustav to dub him the “greatest athlete in the world.”
The inimitable Thorpe could seemingly do it all despite a spate of systemic constraints; his status as an Indigenous American hero leaves little wonder over the discrimination he faced.
Nearly a year after the 1912 Games, the IOC learned that Thorpe had received $30 monthly (over $900 in value today) as a minor league baseball player in 1909 and 1910. The alleged committee that Thorpe had broken amateur regulations, conduct that should have disqualified him from competing.
The IOC’s position was problematic for several reasons. First, it contested Thorpe’s records several months after the challenge period had closed. Furthermore, his participation in the minor leagues was common knowledge, and the compensation was standard for the league.
So, when the officials revoked his Olympic titles on such specious grounds, many believed that its true motives were prejudicial — a sentiment that became supercharged by Indigenous justice movements.
Thorpe fought against the decision but proved no match for the authorities deadset against him. The IOC repossessed both medals and redacted his name from the Olympic annals.
He died of a heart in 1953. His family continued the fight to reinstate his name, but their efforts went largely unrewarded.
Before now, the closest the IOC came to remediation was when it agreed to produce replicas of Thorpe’s medals in 1982. A year later, it restored his status to co-champion in both gold medal events. Still, the committee stopped short of restoring his actual records.
Restoration of Thorpe’s Honors
The IOC said it decided to reinstate Thorpe’s medals alongside Bright Path Strong and the Swedish Olympic Committee (SOC). The surviving family members of Hugo K. Wieslander, who held the decathlon gold medal after the IOC stripped Thorpe of it in 1913, also consulted.
According to the IOC, the family transmitted an opinion Wieslander held that one might call surprising.
The family “confirmed that Wieslander himself had never accepted the Olympic gold medal assigned to him, and had always been of the opinion that Jim Thorpe was the sole legitimate Olympic gold medallist,” the IOC said.
The SOC joined the family in the opinion, as did various other Olympic committees. Eventually, the tide turned.
A Word from the IOC
“We welcome the fact that, thanks to the great engagement of Bright Path Strong, a solution could be found,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “This is a most exceptional and unique situation, which has been addressed by an extraordinary gesture of fair play from the National Olympic Committees.”
It noted that the second-place finishers, Wieslander and Ferdinand Bie of Norway, will lose their gold medals but retain silver. All otherists, including the interim bronze winners who finished fourth in both events, will retain their medal status.
“The light of true greatness can never be extinguished no matter the forces of darkness that seek to deny it,” National Congress of American Indians president Fawn Sharp declared on Friday. “Jim Thorpe’s light will eternally shine to inspire generations of our youth to believe in themselves and the infinite power of their God-given gifts, talents, and dreams.”
For more information about Jim Thorpe and his legacy, visit the Bright Path Strong website.