More than a century later, Jim Thorpe’s Olympic legacy has been officially restored. Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the talented athlete will be reinstated as the sole winner of two events, the pentathlon and decathlon, that he competed in during the 1912 Games in Stockholm.
Thorpe originally won both events, becoming the first Native American to secure an Olympic gold medal for the United States. But officials later discovered that he had violated the Olympics’ strict amateurism regulations: For a short time, he had been paid $25 a week to play minor-league baseball, write the New York Times’ Victor Mather and Tariq Panja. In 1913, he was stripped of his medals.
In 1982, the IOC granted him the title of co-champion for both events. But it never officially amended the record, and Thorpe’s supporters have continued to push for him to be declared the sole winner.
“It was lip service, not restitution,” Smithsonian magazine’s Sally Jenkins wrote in 2012. What’s more, she added, “[c]ountless white athletes abused the amateurism rules and played minor-league ball with impunity.”
In 2020, the nonprofit Bright Path Strong (Thorpe’s Indigenous name is Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path”) started a petition advocating for his reinstatement. As Tulsa World’s Eric Bailey reports, the petition got over 75,000 signatures, as well as the support of the National Congress of American Indians and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“We welcome the fact that, thanks to the great engagement of Bright Path Strong, a solution could be found,” says IOC president Thomas Bach 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.”
Bright Path Strong and the IOC consulted the family of Swedish athlete Hugo Wieslander, who received the decathlon gold medal that had once belonged to Thorpe. Per the statement, Wieslander’s family confirmed that he “had always been of the opinion that Jim Thorpe was the sole legitimate Olympic gold medalist.”
Wieslander and Ferdinand Bie (the Norwegian athlete who had received Thorpe’s gold medal in the pentathlon) are now listed as silver medal winners in their respective events, per the Associated Press (AP).
Thorpe’s supporters, including other Native American athletes, say they are encouraged by last week’s decision.
“I was just so, so touched and so thrilled,” Billy Mills, who is an Olympic gold medalist and a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation, tells Tulsa World. “I had happy tears. I just took the moment to enjoy the cry.”
During the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe far outpaced his competitors. The pentathlon consisted of five events in a single day, and he won four of them. The decathlon was made up of ten events over three days, the last of which was a 1,500-meter run. Thorpe ran it in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds, a time that would be unmatched until 1972.
But Thorpe, known for his reserved nature, did not fight for his medals or his reputation. He once told his daughter, Grace Thorpe, “I won ’em, and I know I won ’em.”
Following his run with the Olympics, Thorpe continued to build an impressive career across several different sports. When he died in 1953, the Times’ obituary recognized him as “probably the greatest natural athlete the world had seen in modern times.”
“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’s co-founder, tells the AP.