But the withdrawal of Thorpe’s gold-medal victories in the demanding pentathlon and decathlon events is better understood as a stinging episode of early 20th-century bigotry.
The posthumous return of Thorpe’s medals to his family in 1982 went partway to making amends. The International Olympic Committee, of which I am a member, should go the rest of the way and restore Thorpe as the sole first-place finisher in his Olympic medal events. Since 1982, he has been listed by the IOC as a co-winner with competitors he resoundingly defeated.
Justice is overdue for Wa-Tho-Huk, who was born in 1888 in Indian Territory, latter-day Oklahoma. The name chosen by his parents — his father belonged to the Sac and Fox tribe, his mother to the Potawatomi — was prophetic. Translated to English, it means Bright Path. For the convenience of those in power, his name to the rest of the world was James Francis Thorpe.
In 1904, the 16-year-old Thorpe entered the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa. It was the first in a federal boarding-school system designed to remove all vestiges of Native American children’s culture, including language, religion and clothing. The philosophy of Carlisle’s founder, Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, was to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”
Thorpe, who went on to play pro football and major league baseball, became a multisport star at Carlisle. One of his biographers, Robert W. Wheeler, reported that Carlisle coach Glenn “Pop” Warner directed Thorpe and two other Carlisle athletes to play semipro summer baseball in North Carolina. Thorpe was paid a pittance — the exact amount isn’t clear — but Carlisle’s strict control over the wages of students who worked meant he probably kept nothing. And remember: Thorpe played at Warner’s instruction.
Warner was also his coach at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, where Thorpe handily won gold medals in events that required skills including sprinting, hurdling, long-jumping and throwing the discus. King Gustav V of Sweden proclaimed Thorpe the “world’s greatest athlete.” When Thorpe and his teammates were honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York, he was being hailed in a country where he wouldn’t become an official citizen until the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924.
In January 1913, the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram revealed Thorpe’s semipro baseball experience. The news appeared to outrage the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), American Olympic Committee (AOC) and other amateurism guardians. Their policies prohibited deriving income from athletic competition, which ensured that only those with existing financial support — college athletes, usually — could participate.
Thorpe’s mistake was to trust Warner and Carlisle’s superintendent, Moses Friedman. “Someone had to take the fall for the humiliating scandal that tainted the American glory in Stockholm,” wrote Thorpe biographer Kate Buford, “and it was not going to be the coach, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, its superintendent, the AAU or the AOC.” Warner and AAU secretary James Sullivan rushed to pin responsibility solely on Thorpe.
Warner presented Sullivan with a confession letter signed by Thorpe. James Ring Adams, writing in American Indian magazine in 2012, noted that a Carlisle friend of Thorpe’s later told a congressional investigator the letter had been drafted by Warner and Carlisle’s superintendent, Friedman.
The machinery to deny Thorpe his Olympic achievements quickly kicked in. He was not given a chance to defend himself. Sullivan demanded Thorpe’s Olympic disqualification; Warner seized his medals and trophies and shipped them to Stockholm. The Swedish organizers acceded to the Americans’ wishes — ignoring a rule of the 1912 Games that complaints regarding an event’s outcome had to be lodged within 30 days of the prize-giving, accompanied by a 20-kronor fee (Rule 13). Six months had already passed.
The U.S. sports establishment’s attack on Thorpe, of course, reflected a larger pattern of the nation’s long mistreatment of Native Americans. Thorpe’s tribal homelands had been seized by European-descended invaders, who then brazenly tried to stamp out his people’s culture, language and relatives in the name of “civilization.”
Thorpe survived an education also designed to rob him of his culture. Then, after he represented the United States with integrity on the world stage, this nation robbed him of his reputation by persuading the IOC to withdraw his medals.
Not everyone understands the pernicious nature of discrimination that has been practiced in the United States since the 17th century. As one whose ancestry is African and Native American, I do.
That is why I believe that Wa-Tho-Huk — a.k.a. Jim Thorpe — must be fully restored to his status as the sole winner of the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon. In this time of reckoning over social justice, I urge my IOC colleagues to do our part by righting this wrong.
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