‘World’s Greatest Athlete’ Jim Thorpe Was Wronged by Bigotry. The IOC Must Correct the RecordBreaking News
tags: sports, Native American history, Jim Thorpe, Olympic Games
For those who know the story of the Native American athlete Jim Thorpe and the 1912 Olympic Games, it may be familiar mainly as an example of how the elitist cult of amateurism a century ago resulted in one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in sports history.
But the withdrawal of Thorpe’s gold-medal victories in the demanding pentathlon and decathlon events is better understood as a stinging episode of early 20th-century bigotry.
The posthumous return of Thorpe’s medals to his family in 1982 went partway to making amends. The International Olympic Committee, of which I am a member, should go the rest of the way and restore Thorpe as the sole first-place finisher in his Olympic medal events. Since 1982, he has been listed by the IOC as a co-winner with competitors he resoundingly defeated.
Justice is overdue for Wa-Tho-Huk, who was born in 1888 in Indian Territory, latter-day Oklahoma. The name chosen by his parents — his father belonged to the Sac and Fox tribe, his mother to the Potawatomi — was prophetic. Translated to English, it means Bright Path. For the convenience of those in power, his name to the rest of the world was James Francis Thorpe.
In 1904, the 16-year-old Thorpe entered the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa. It was the first in a federal boarding-school system designed to remove all vestiges of Native American children’s culture, including language, religion and clothing. The philosophy of Carlisle’s founder, Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, was to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”
Thorpe, who went on to play pro football and major league baseball, became a multisport star at Carlisle. One of his biographers, Robert W. Wheeler, reported that Carlisle coach Glenn “Pop” Warner directed Thorpe and two other Carlisle athletes to play semipro summer baseball in North Carolina. Thorpe was paid a pittance — the exact amount isn’t clear — but Carlisle’s strict control over the wages of students who worked meant he probably kept nothing. And remember: Thorpe played at Warner’s instruction.
Warner was also his coach at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, where Thorpe handily won gold medals in events that required skills including sprinting, hurdling, long-jumping and throwing the discus. King Gustav V of Sweden proclaimed Thorpe the “world’s greatest athlete.” When Thorpe and his teammates were honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York, he was being hailed in a country where he wouldn’t become an official citizen until the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924.
In January 1913, the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram revealed Thorpe’s semipro baseball experience. The news appeared to outrage the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), American Olympic Committee (AOC) and other amateurism guardians. Their policies prohibited deriving income from athletic competition, which ensured that only those with existing financial support — college athletes, usually — could participate.
Thorpe’s mistake was to trust Warner and Carlisle’s superintendent, Moses Friedman. “Someone had to take the fall for the humiliating scandal that tainted the American glory in Stockholm,” wrote Thorpe biographer Kate Buford, “and it was not going to be the coach, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, its superintendent, the AAU or the AOC.” Warner and AAU secretary James Sullivan rushed to pin responsibility solely on Thorpe.
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