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After a century, sports finally rights a wrong

David Colburn
Posted 7/20/22

You know you’re getting older when something happens to which your first reaction is, “Well, I never thought I’d live to see the day when ….”That was exactly my …

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After a century, sports finally rights a wrong


You know you’re getting older when something happens to which your first reaction is, “Well, I never thought I’d live to see the day when ….”
That was exactly my reaction to the news this week that the International Olympic Committee restored the records of first place in the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon to one of the greatest athletes of all time, Jim Thorpe. I honestly never expected to see it.
Coupled with his phenomenal Olympic triumphs, his already legendary prowess in collegiate football and his star-quality play in basketball and lacrosse made Thorpe a national hero in 1912. Other athletes of the day were suddenly measured by comparison to Thorpe. One example was Harvard football player Charles Brickley, who was described in national newspapers as the “Jim Thorpe of the Caucasian race” when he chose to enter the shot put in an AAU track meet in early 1913.
Sportswriters across the country fed the frenzy by speculating about Thorpe’s professional potential at a time when most pro sports were in their infancy. The humble Thorpe nearly quit football because the pressure of celebrity was so intense in the months following his Olympic victories.
When he returned to his birthplace of Prague, Okla. and his Sac and Fox homelands in December 1912 for some hunting and quiet, national writers speculated about his future as a possible “Rockerfeller among red men” because he might capitalize, they said, on oil field developments there. A wire service article of the day even noted that, “In the interests of science, Thorpe has recently been undergoing measurements on the theory that his development is physically that of just about the perfect man.” He was evidently perfect enough that at one point he was receiving up to 30 letters a day from women all over the world proposing matrimony, according to another report.
Clearly, the public couldn’t get enough of Jim Thorpe in the months following the Olympics.
So the outcry was huge in 1913 when the AAU voided Thorpe’s amateur status and sent his Olympic medals and trophies back to Sweden because he had earned a small amount of money playing summer baseball. People knew other college athletes played summer baseball for money. Thorpe was held up by most as a true sportsman for readily admitting his baseball participation. The AAU came under heavy fire for its decision, but they held to a strict standard of amateurism, at least in Thorpe’s case, and stuck to their guns. His medals and trophies were collected by the AAU and shipped back to Sweden, and the books were wiped clean of any record of his Olympic participation.
Thorpe continued to have success and public acclaim in professional baseball and football.However, after retiring from sports, Thorpe had a difficult life, never holding any one job for long. In 1950 he was flat broke and was accepted by a hospital as a charity case for treatment for lip cancer. Thorpe died from a third heart attack in 1953.
Nearly 30 years later, it was discovered Thorpe’s Olympic titles and medals should never have been taken away. A newly discovered 1912 Olympics rule book explicitly stated that any challenges to an athlete’s amateur status had to be formally filed within 30 days of the competition. The revelation about Thorpe’s baseball playing didn’t come until six months after the games closed. Neither the AAU nor the Olympic committee had any standing to strip Thorpe of his titles and medals, yet they did so anyway, a move sadly reflective of the many injustices inflicted upon Native Americans throughout history.
And Thorpe had personal ties to at least three of those injustices – forced migration, lack of U.S. citizenship, and the Indian boarding school system.
Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox tribe, but he also had ancestors who were Menominee, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi. Two of his Potawatomi ancestors were part of the Potawatomi Trail of Death, a 600-mile forced relocation of over 800 Potawatomi people from Indiana to Kansas in 1839, during which over 40 people died.
Thorpe won his Olympic medals competing for a country that denied him citizenship rights until 1917, when he apparently finally qualified under the Dawes Act of 1887. All Native Americans would not receive birthright citizenship until 1924.
Thorpe gained his sports fame while attending the flagship of Indian boarding schools, Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa. It was the third such school he attended, after first going to the Sac and Fox school in Oklahoma (founded by the Quakers) and then Haskell Industrial Indian Training School in Lawrence, Kan. Thorpe was sent to Haskell and Carlisle by his father’s choice, and ran away at least twice from Haskell.
Thorpe arrived at Carlisle as a scrawny lad, about 5’7” and 127 pounds, there for an education, not sports. But his natural athletic ability was quickly discovered and blossomed as he grew bigger, leading to his rise to stardom on the football field and at the Olympics.
But what kind of education did he get at the school that was at the foundation of the “kill the Indian, save the man” mantra of the Indian school system? Like so many collegiate athletes since then, was Thorpe ultimately used for Carlisle’s benefit without receiving an educational benefit in return?
Football was huge at Carlisle. They were recognized nationally for their play and commanded huge sums of money from other colleges who sought to add them to their schedules. After Thorpe turned pro, the program was subject to Congressional investigation in 1914 for financial abuses related to its sports programs, and the superintendent and football coach were dismissed. Disgraced and already on the decline, Carlisle was closed for good in 1918.
Perhaps it was Carlisle, perhaps it was Thorpe’s own shortcomings, it could have been anything that kept Thorpe from achieving little beyond his athletic success – more than a century after his moments of Olympic glory, it’s all pure speculation. But still, I wonder.
What’s not up for speculation, however, is Thorpe’s place in the firmament of the greatest American sports heroes. It never has been.
Some argue that proclaiming him today as the sole winner of the 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon competitions is merely an attempt to cleanse the record of an injustice that should never have happened, as it comes seven decades too late to do Jim Thorpe any good.
I quite disagree. For thousands upon thousands of people, Native and non-Native alike, the blemish on Thorpe’s storied legacy has now been almost fully removed. After being forced to hand the titles over to the distant second-place finishers in 1913, and after the lame gesture in 1982 when the IOC gave Thorpe’s family medals but refused to amend the official historical record to reflect Thorpe’s performances, Thorpe has finally gotten a measure of justice. I, for one, am thrilled. It is an act and a moment to be celebrated.
And while small and too late for him to appreciate, there’s more to it than simply athletics, or at least there could be. Restoring Thorpe’s status could also serve as symbol that it is not too late for present-day America to look closely at its past, recognize the wrongs that have been done to Native Americans, and take steps to acknowledge them and find ways to make amends. That would be a legacy for Thorpe even better than Olympic champion.