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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye and Kolby KickingWoman
ICT

Perhaps the greatest Olympian, Jim Thorpe, is back on top.

The International Olympic Committee has corrected the record books to reflect Thorpe's Olympic victories for the decathlon and pentathlon events in Stockholm’s 1912 Olympic Games. The Olympics website shows that Thorpe, Sac and Fox and Potawatomi, is the sole gold medal winner for the decathlon and pentathlon for the 1912 games Thursday afternoon.

ICT learned earlier this week that the committee had planned to announce the change Friday, the 110th anniversary of Thorpe winning the decathlon medal. Thorpe won the pentathlon on July 7, 1912.

In Friday’s official announcement, Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, said this solution was reached “thanks to the great engagement of Bright Path Strong.”

“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,” Bach said.

It has been a two-year battle for Nedra Darling, executive producer of the Jim Thorpe biopic, “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story.”

“That’s terrific. We have been working with the IOC for almost two years now and asking them to reinstate Jim’s winnings for his decathlon and pentathlon events,” Darling said after learning of the Olympic website changes.

She called Billy Mills, Olympic gold medalist and Oglala Lakota, after receiving the news.

“It was emotional. It was the most beautiful gift I could get to be able to tell him, and I didn’t realize it ‘til he just couldn’t speak and I couldn’t speak,” Darling said, who is Prairie Band Potawatomi. “He’s been so supportive of what I’ve been doing.”

All Mills could do was let the tears flow, “tears of joy,” he said; adding he fought for composure and gathered his thoughts during his call with Darling.

“Jim Thorpe is now the greatest athlete in the world, being the single holder of those two gold medals. He's the gold medalist in the pentathlon and decathlon,” Mills said. “He rightfully reclaims being considered the greatest athlete in the world.”

Mills won gold in the 10,000 meter race during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and is a longtime advocate for the restoration of Thorpe’s medals.

In his time since winning his gold medal, Mills said he’s done a lot of reading on Greek mythology and feels that Thorpe dwells atop Mount Olympus with other Olympians and Greek gods like Zeus.

“When I leave this world and I'm going off to the spirit world, one of my first visits would be to Mount Olympus to meet Jim Thorpe and the other Olympians that dwell there,” Mills said.

Thorpe dominated the pentathlon and decathlon during the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden. So much so, at the time of being awarded his gold medals, King Gustav V said; “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world. I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.”

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(Previous: Returning an Olympic win to Jim Thorpe)

Cropped to 16x9: Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, in Carlisle Indian School track uniform, running at Stockholm in Olympic track practice. (Photo courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society)

After the games however, the Olympic committee found out that Jim had been paid to play professional baseball and stripped him of his medals and records. The committee found that Jim played professional baseball before the 1912 games which violated the Olympic rules at the time. The rules changed later that allowed professional athletes to participate in the Olympics. Replicas of the medals were returned to his family in 1983, according to Bright Path Strong, a nonprofit organization.

In July 2020, the organization started a petition aiming to correct the record books. The petition says calling Thorpe a “co-champion” downplays his historic records. It has garnered more than 75,000 signatures since its filing.

“To call Jim Thorpe a co-champion in his events isn't just inaccurate, it stands as a painful reminder of the deep inequities even the most triumphant athletes of color have faced,” the petition reads.

Jim’s granddaughter, Teresa Thorpe, signed the petition.

“I am proud to claim Jim Thorpe as my fraternal grandfather. He was graced by God with an extraordinary athleticism and truly stood out among the Olympian pack as a ‘Brightpath.’ Unfortunately, he lived his life in the shadow of the injustice of his stripped gold medalist status. This current period of social unrest in the United States that cries for a complete level human playing field would be a perfect moment in time to correct the long standing injustice that has marred his legend for so long. He was the true winner in the hearts and minds of many and I hope this petition will provide a realization of Jim's complete reinstatement.”

Lewis Tewanima, Hopi, won the silver medal in the 10,000-meter race in the 1912 Olympics. Like Jim, Tewanima had attended the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

(Related: ‘Toughest race' is off; honoring Louis Tewanima's Olympic story)

Darling remembers Thorpe’s wife, Grace Thorpe, showing her one of the medals as a kid. Darling’s dad, Marcel Darling, and Jim were “very good friends.” They lived near each other in Los Angeles as they both were athletes.

“I remember seeing the medal as it was shown to me when I was younger, and how proud Grace was about it, but I didn't know that part of what the original Jim Thorpe Foundation did to get those metals back that they did not secure the records to be changed.”

Once Darling retired from the Department of Interior, she joined the Bright Path organization to executive produce Jim’s story.

Getting his records instated was on the to-do list but since they couldn’t shoot the film during the pandemic, the records moved up on the list of priorities.

Like many, Justin Lenhart, the curator of the Jim Thorpe Museum at the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, said the correction was a long time coming and way overdue. He said the correction further cements Thorpe’s legacy as the greatest athlete of the 20th century and “ one of the greatest athletes this country's ever produced.”

“He achieved something that nobody else had ever achieved and has never achieved since and that's winning gold in the decathlon and pentathlon,” Lenhart said. “It was a travesty of sport that his medals were stripped from him the way they were and they have righted an egregious wrong by restoring his records to the Olympic ledger.”

Now that the records have been reinstated, Mills said it is important to re-educate people, especially young people, on Thorpe’s success and how great he was.

“I think we all have the responsibility to teach our young people about Jim Thorpe. We need to put him rightly, in the subconscious minds of sports people, people worldwide, that follow sport, who Jim Thorpe is, how great he was.”

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*This story has been corrected to show that Grace Thorpe is the daughter of Jim Thorpe