Why Are Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Records Still Not Recognized?- page 5 | History | Smithsonian
Jim Thorpe's epic performance in the 15 events that made up the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Summer Games remains the most solid reflection we have of him. (Bettmann / Corbis)

Why Are Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Records Still Not Recognized?

100 years ago, Jim Thorpe became the greatest American Olympian of all time, but not if you ask the IOC

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It’s an astonishing fact that the greatest athlete in American history would not appear on a Wheaties box, the ratification of champions, until 2001, and only after a tireless letter-writing campaign.

Here’s another fact: Thorpe’s Olympic victories still have not been properly reinstated in the official record.

It’s commonly believed that Thorpe at last received Olympic justice in October of 1982 when the IOC bowed to years of public pressure and delivered two replica medals to his family, announcing, “The name of James Thorpe will be added to the list of athletes who were crowned Olympic champions at the 1912 Games.” What’s less commonly known is that the IOC appended this small, mean sentence: “However, the official report for these Games will not be modified.”

In other words, the IOC refused even to acknowledge Thorpe’s results in the 15 events he competed in. To this day the Olympic record does not mention them. The IOC also refused to demote Wieslander and the other runners-up from their elevated medal status. Wieslander’s results stand as the official winning tally. Thorpe was merely a co-champion, with no numerical evidence of his overwhelming superiority. This is no small thing. It made Thorpe an asterisk, not a champion. It was lip service, not restitution.

On this 100-year anniversary of the Stockholm Games, there are several good reasons for the IOC to relent and fully recognize Thorpe as the sole champion that he was. Countless white athletes abused the amateurism rules and played minor-league ball with impunity. What’s more, the IOC did not follow its own rules for disqualification: Any objection to Thorpe’s status should have been raised within 30 days of the Games, and it was not. It was nice of the IOC to award replica medals to Thorpe’s family, but those are just souvenirs. After 100 years of phantom contending, Thorpe should enter the record as the incomparable that he was.

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