Willie R. Tubbs, FISM News
It’s been 109 years since legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic medals and almost 70 years since Thorpe’s death. Although well overdue, the sports world has finally righted a wrong in reinstating Thorpe as an Olympic champion.
Thorpe, who once bore the nickname “the greatest athlete in the world,” dominated his events at the 1912 Olympics, winning gold in the decathlon and pentathlon.
However, in 1913 the Amateur Athletic Union, the precursor to the modern-day U.S. Olympic Committee, stripped Thorpe of his medals when it discovered he had earned between $2 and $35 playing semi-pro baseball (a range of about $60 to $1,000 dollars in 2022 dollars).
In the modern day, when professional athletes populate much of the roster of Olympic events, money earned is not a matter of much concern. In the early 1900s, however, the Olympics were still considered the domain of amateurs. Thorpe’s light wages, which he attested he earned in ignorance of the Olympics’ rules, cost him dearly.
For many years the speculation has been that Thorpe was singled out for punishment not because he broke a rule, but because of his Native American ancestry.
While Thorpe’s medals were restored in the latter half of the 20th Century, he was still listed as a co-winner of each event for which he took gold.
That was until a non-profit group called Bright Path Strong began a campaign to have Thorpe officially recognized as the sole winner. After two years of collecting signatures and working with the Olympic Committees of the affected nations, Bright Path Strong was able to convince the International Olympic Committee to agree to the change.
“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 co-founder and citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, said in a statement.
According to Native News Online, Bright Path Strong collected more than 75,000 signatures.
“We welcome the fact that, thanks to the great engagement of Bright Path Strong, a solution could be found,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said in a statement. “This is a most exceptional and unique situation, which has been addressed by an extraordinary gesture of fair play from the National Olympic Committees concerned.”
Thorpe performed so well in 1912 that both Russian Tsar Nicholas II and Swedish King Gustav V took notice, the latter deeming Thorpe to be the greatest athlete in the world. He was also a standout in baseball and football.
However, even his celebrity could not save him from intense bigotry.
“Jim Thorpe faced seemingly insurmountable odds on and off the field,” Bright Path Strong board member Dennis Hendricks said in a statement. “He represented this country before it even recognized Native Americans as citizens but he never gave up. He was an inspiration then and he is an inspiration now. Today is yet another victory for this great hero.”