STILLWATER, Okla. — Gail Lynn Hannon has a compilation of her grandfather’s countless accomplishments.
If anyone wants to know more about her life, she gladly shares a copy. He excelled in many sports, from baseball to football to track and field. In 1912, as Hannon and his extended family are well aware, he cemented his status as “the greatest athlete in the world” with gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
The family has always acknowledged the truth: Jim Thorpe placed first in both events. But for more than a century, the International Olympic Committee did not recognize it.
On July 15, the IOC conducted a review that ultimately returned the honor to the late Thorpe, who owned a home in Yale and lived there with his first wife and children. The committee announced that Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, would be reinstated in Olympic records as the stand-alone winner of the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon.
Hannon, Thorpe’s oldest living direct descendant, learned the news from her nephew, Illinois resident James “Jim” Thorpe Kossakowski, Thorpe’s great-grandson.
“I thanked everyone for all their hard work, time and tremendous effort to make this happen,” said Hannon, who lives in Florida. “And I’m impressed that people still care about him so much.”
At 84, Hannon has seen people celebrate her grandfather’s sporting legacy, but she knows others have overlooked and underestimated him. Thorpe’s path to Olympic recognition took great effort from family members and activists, while the record books did not accurately reflect his accomplishments for nearly 110 years. Gail Hendrix, Thorpe’s great-granddaughter who lives at Yale, called it “the longest running competition in Olympic history“.
Kossakowski, Hendrix’s brother, pointed out how the protracted process has continued through generations. It is a posthumous honor for Thorpe, who died in 1953, and his daughter Gail, who advocated for the restoration of his archives until his death in 2005.
In the 1980s, the situation was partially rectified when the IOC named Thorpe co-champion and presented replica gold medals to his descendants, but it was an incomplete correction.
Kossakowski was then a child. Today, almost 40 years later, the archives are entirely modified.
“(Thorpe’s) kids are all dead, and now you’re going to talk to the grandkids,” Kossakowski said. “I’m a great-grandchild of his, so it’s been a long, long process, and I’m so grateful that they finally handed over his record as the only winner.”
The controversy began in 1913, when the IOC stripped Thorpe of his medals due to the discovery that he had briefly received compensation for playing minor league baseball. At the time, this violated the Olympics‘ strict rules of amateurism.
In 2012, Sally Jenkins of Smithsonian Magazine wrote about the injustice of his disqualification.
“Countless white athletes abused the rules of amateurism and played minor league ball with impunity,” Jenkins said. “Furthermore, the IOC did not follow its own disqualification rules: Any objections to Thorpe’s status should have been raised within 30 days of the Games, and it was not.”
When Thorpe, America’s first Native American gold medalist, competed in the Olympics, the government didn’t even recognize Native people as citizens. It was 12 years before the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act.
Hannon said her grandfather dealt with cases of racism, but she does not cite bias as the reason for the delays surrounding the reinstatement of her case.
She and Kossakowski said they don’t know why it took so long. Perhaps, Hanno theorized, it dragged on because of ignorance: much of the public is uninformed of the extent of his success, so naming him the only gold medalist had not been a priority.
“It’s a shame,” Hannon said. “…They don’t realize all he did, all he achieved, all the sports he participated in. He was simply the most beautiful natural athlete ever.”
Is it too late for society to give it its due credit? Hannon said she thinks “we’ve lost the greatest athlete of all time” and a lot of people won’t know who he was. Well-known publications have sometimes excluded him from honors and conversations about the best athletes in the world.
But at least 75,936 people are invested in making sure Thorpe’s accolades aren’t forgotten.
This is the number of signatures on the “Help Fix Olympic Records and Return Jim Thorpe’s Victories” petition, featured on Bright Path Strong’s website. Bright Path Strong is a non-profit organization whose title alludes to Thorpe Wa-Tho-Huk’s name, which translates to “Bright Path”. Honorary council members include descendants of Thorpe, Mary Thorpe, Teresa Thorpe and Anita Thorpe; and several tribal partners are listed on the band’s website, striving to preserve its heritage and “share and amplify authentic Native American voices and stories, past and present”.
Krystyn Kossakowski, Thorpe’s great-granddaughter who lives in Stillwater, said it was great to see supporters working faithfully to bring about change using the petition. It features comments from signatories across the United States and beyond.
“I just think her story alone is so amazing,” Krystyn said. “I think that really strikes a chord with a lot of people, especially Native Americans and people in the sports world.”
The story of Thorpe’s life transcends sport, carrying a message of perseverance in the face of adversity and heartbreak. As a teenager, he faced a huge loss. His twin, Charlie, died aged 9, and by 16 Thorpe had lost both parents.
“Jim Thorpe has endured many challenges in his life,” said Jim Kossakowski. “Being Native American brought additional challenges to that, especially in the early 1900s there.
“…He overcame every challenge he faced and did it with class and dignity.”
Buoyed by a glittering career at Carlisle Indian School, Thorpe largely established himself as the GOAT – aka the greatest of all time – long before the acronym was coined and sports fans debated intensely over who deserved the title. When Thorpe won the decathlon in 1912, King Gustav V of Sweden said, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe’s activities were eclectic. He was the first president of the American Professional Football Association (which morphed into the NFL), played Major League Baseball, and even won a ballroom dancing championship.
To Hanno, Thorpe was a kind-hearted grandfather.
Hannon said she met him in Chicago after World War II, when she was no older than 8 or 9. Although she knows him as a family member, she also felt something extraordinary in his life. She recalled a childhood memory from North Carolina when, as her family was returning home, burglars escaped through the back door, smuggling in some of Thorpe’s memorabilia. Although it was a surprising moment, it illustrated the value of these possessions.
“It was the very beginning of my realizing that, ‘Gee, my grandfather was famous,'” Hannon said.
Despite his celebrity status, Thorpe remained personable and approachable, making time to play football with kids at Yale.
“We’re a normal family, and it’s not like we made a lot of money or anything like that,” Krystyn said. “It’s about restoring his name, and we’re so honored for everything he’s done. He deserves it, and I think we all fought really hard to make that happen.
The family of Sweden’s Hugo Wieslander, who became the decathlon gold medalist when the IOC won the medals from Thorpe, were on board the mission. According to an Associated Press article, the IOC said it had been confirmed that “Wieslander himself had never accepted the Olympic gold medal awarded to him and had always been of the opinion that Jim Thorpe was the only legitimate Olympic gold medalist.”
The Swedish Olympic Committee, as well as the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the Confederation of Sports – pentathlon finalist Ferdinand Bie was Norwegian – agreed, according to the AP.
Since the announcement in July, Thorpe’s descendants have rejoiced. Krystyn said the people of Stillwater congratulated her and the news spread throughout the family.
The mission to preserve and enhance Thorpe’s legacy continues. James Kossakowski said he had never seen the original medals and would like them presented to the family.
He keeps the replicas and when he heard about the reinstatement of Thorpe’s medal, he took the time to admire them. Then he offered a prayer of gratitude to his late grandmother, Gail, Thorpe’s eldest daughter. Jim Kossakowski said he had notes from the 1970s that she and her siblings had written, trying to devise a plan for the reinstatement of Thorpe’s medal.
“I hope her and my mom are standing next to each other and smiling and saying, ‘I wish I could share this with my family,'” Jim Kossakowski said. “They’ve worked so hard, so many years for this, and I only wish they could be here to see this happen.”