With the upcoming Summer Olympics in London falling on the 100th anniversary of the 1912 games in Stockholm, where the legendary Jim Thorpe won, then lost, then posthumously won again two gold medals, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened a new exhibit Friday morning to honor Native olympians.
The most prized artifacts are the gold medals signifying Thorpe’s triumphs in the decathlon and pentathlon. But James Ring Adams, curator of the exhibit “Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics,” quickly reminds us that Thorpe, of the Sac and Fox Nation, was hardly the only excellent Native American olympian over the years. In 1912 alone, Thorpe’s teammates included 10,000-meter Silver runner Lewis Tewanima (Hopi), fourth-place marathoner Andrew Sockalexis (Penobscot) and freestyle Gold swimmer Duke Kahanamoku.Their stories, and those of more modern Native Olympians, are told in the exhibit.
Tewanima’s time in the 10,000-meter race set an American record that stood until 1964, when Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) broke it at the Tokyo games and won the Gold medal. Mills remains the only American to have won the 10,000 meters.
With his medal in a display case nearby, Mills, 73, regaled guests at the exhibit opening with the tale of his come-from-behind finishing kick in the 1964 race that track aficionados rank among the greatest rallies ever.
In third place, “with 110 meters to go, I had to make my move now ,” Mills recalled. In that moment, he remembered a lesson his father taught him as boy when they were fishing. Little Billy could soar on “wings of an eagle” if he would only let go of his doubt and negative thoughts, his father had said.
Now, in the race, Mills imagined he saw an eagle on the jersey of a competitor. He took it as a sign.
“With 30 yards to go, I said to myself, ‘I may never be this close again, I’ve got to do it now, wings of an eagle!’” And then: “‘I won, I won, I won!’”
After the race, Mills looked at that competitor’s jersey again. There was no eagle.
It was Thorpe, however, who was the towering figure, considered by many to be the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. After his Olympic performance, he went on to play professional football, baseball and basketball.
“Jim Thorpe was beyond inspiring, he was like a God to me,” Mills said.
The exhibit recounts the story of how Thorpe lost his medals, an outrageous injustice by modern standards, when Olympic athletes benefit from sponsorships and lavish training resources. Thorpe’s medals were stripped and his records expunged several months after the competition when it emerged he had once been paid $5 a game to play semi-pro baseball. In those days, an elitist ideal of reserving the Olympics for gentlemen amateurs functioned as a kind prejudice against less-privileged athletes.
In 1983, after a campaign by Thorpe’s family, supporters, his biographer Robert Wheeler, and millions of petition-signers, the International Olympics Committee presented two Gold medals to Thorpe’s family.
The restored medals weren’t the originals. After being taken from Thorpe, they had been sent back to Sweden and were later apparently stolen. The original medal molds were found, thought, and two identical copies were struck for the family.
After being on display at the museum through July 9, the medals will be sent to London to be exhibited during the Summer Games. (The rest of the exhibit will continue at the museum through Sept. 3.)
William Thorpe, 83, one of Jim’s sons, said the family is pleased for the medals and their story to be receiving perhaps their greatest public exposure since the ceremony when they were finally returned.
“We as a family are very proud...to be able to carry the Thorpe name over these many years and have people still remember and still say he was the greatest athlete in the world,” William Thorpe said.
Jim Thorpe’s legacy has been the subject of more than one controversy. William Thorpe and some family members are waging a legal battle against Jim Thorpe, Pa., the municipality that changed its name from Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk in order to get possession of Thorpe’s remains for burial, after the athlete’s death in 1953 at 65. Some family members think he should be buried where he grew up, on the rural Great Plains near Prague, Okla.
The bizarre story of how Thorpe’s third wife, Patsy Thorpe, cut the deal to bring the body to Pennsylvania, and the litigious aftermath, was on the subject of a recent piece by Neely Tucker on the cover of the Post Sunday Magazine.
For now, William Thorpe said he hopes that young people, especially budding Native athletes, will see the museum exhibit, learn the stories, and be inspired to become Olympians themselves.