Jim Thorpe, one of history’s greatest athletes and a victim of what many saw as a century-old Olympic injustice, was reinstated as the sole winner of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games.
Thorpe, who excelled in a dozen or more sports, had dominated his two events at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, but was stripped of his medals after it emerged he had won a few dollars briefly playing professional baseball before his Olympic career. American officials, in what historians saw as a mixture of racism against Thorpe, who was a Native American, and a fanatical devotion to the idea of amateurism, were among the loudest supporters of his disqualification.
Thorpe’s recognition by the International Olympic Committee, announced on Friday, comes 40 years after it declared him co-winner of both events. But the restoration in 1982 was not enough for its supporters, who continued to campaign on behalf of Thorpe, an American icon particularly revered in Native American communities.
Athletes who were declared champions by the IOC after Thorpe’s disqualification – Hugo Wieslander, a Swede who placed second in the decathlon, and Ferdinand Bie of Norway, who finished behind Thorpe in the pentathlon – have expressed great reluctance to accept their gold medals after Thorpe was stripped of his victories in 1913. The IOC said it consulted with the Swedish and Norwegian Olympic committees and surviving members of Wieslander’s family before reinstating Thorpe as sole champion of both events.
Bie and Wieslander will now be co-silver medalists in their events. Current silver and bronze medalists will not be demoted.
“This is an exceptional and unique situation,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “It is being addressed with an extraordinary gesture of fair play from the National Olympic Committees concerned.”
The Swedish Olympic Committee responded to a request for comment saying: “The SOC would like to quote Swedish King Gustav V, who said to Jim Thorpe at the medal ceremony: ‘Sir, you are the greatest athlete in world.'” The Norwegian Olympic Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
The decision to name Thorpe the sole winner of the decathlon and pentathlon was reported on Thursday by Indian Country Today, which noted that Olympic officials had quietly placed him alone in first place on the official Games website.
The restoration of Thorpe’s medals has long been a cause for Native Americans and other activists, who in recent years have renewed petition campaigns and lobbied the IOC for change. Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma and attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, and his accomplishments in several sports are legendary in Native American circles.
“It is a time to celebrate the Olympic achievements of Jim Thorpe in 1912 and the full recognition that the International Olympic Committee gives them today,” said Nedra Darling, a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation whose father was a longtime friend of Thorpe. “It’s been a long journey up to this point, but a very important journey for those of us in the Bright Path Strong movement and across Indian Country.”
Bright Path Strong, a foundation named after Thorpe’s Aboriginal name, has been among the leaders in efforts to restore Thorpe’s status.
“We are pleased that, thanks to the great commitment of Bright Path Strong, a solution could be found,” Bach said.
Thorpe’s exploits on the football field were legendary: in 1911, Carlisle upset Harvard thanks in large part to Thorpe, who played halfback and also scored four field goals.
Thorpe traveled to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm to compete in the decathlon and another now defunct track competition, the pentathlon. He won both, received international acclaim and joined a ticker tape parade for Olympic stars on Broadway in New York. The Times reported that Thorpe received the most cheers, alongside Pat McDonald, a shot putter who was a traffic cop in Times Square.
But the following year, it emerged that Thorpe had earned $25 a week playing minor league baseball a few years earlier. Under the strict rules of amateurism of the time, he was stripped of his gold medals.
His amateur status revoked, Thorpe began a career in major league baseball, playing in the field from 1913 to 1919 for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. Remarkably, he switched to professional football in 1920 and played until the age of 41 with six teams, including the New York Giants. He is a member of the College and Professional Football Hall of Fame. In 1950, he was chosen as the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll of sportswriters.
Thorpe died in 1953. His New York Times obituary called him “probably the greatest natural athlete the world has seen in modern times.”