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Returning an Olympic win to Jim Thorpe

New petition seeks to have International Olympic Committee correct record books

Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Who is the greatest athlete in American history?

Simone Biles has quite the resumé to make a compelling argument. Tiger Woods and Serena Williams dominated their respective sports at levels rarely seen. Muhammad Ali backed up his brashness with results in the boxing ring.

Yet, perhaps the greatest American athlete of all time wasn’t even considered an American citizen until 1924. American Indians weren’t granted citizenship until then President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill in June of that year.

After his dominating performance at the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden, King Gustav V proclaimed Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox and Potawatomi, the best in the world.

“You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world. I would consider it an honor to shake your hand,” Gustav V said after placing two gold medals around Thorpe’s neck.

Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, receives his Olympic laurel crown from Sweden’s King Gustav V at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo courtesy of Carlisle Indian School History, Cumberland County Historical Society)

Thorpe ran away from his competition during the games — literally — winning gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon. He was so far ahead of his fellow competitors, Thorpe only needed to finish 7th or better in the final event of the decathlon, the 1,500-meter race, to win gold.

However, the official results from the 1912 games list Thorpe as a co-gold medal winner with athletes from Norway and Sweden.

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This is due to the International Olympic Committee stripping Thorpe of his accomplishments in 1913 after they found out he had been paid to play professional baseball prior to the 1912 games. A change in rules later allowed many professional athletes to compete in the Olympics.

In 1982, replicas of the medals were returned to his family, but the official records still don’t recognize Thorpe as the sole winner.

Wednesday, a petition titled, “Take Back What Was Stolen: Return Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Win” was started calling for the International Olympic Committee to correct their history books.

The petition aims to, “rewrite the history of Jim Thorpe’s successes to make room for healing, growth, progress, and a more equitable future for all,” according to the press release.

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Nedra Darling, Prairie Band Potawatomi, has set the goal to gather more than a million signatures on the petition and hopes the committee recognizes the importance of setting the record straight.

“Give him his true standing, tell the truth. That's all I ask of them is for the International Olympic Committee to tell the truth And they haven't done that yet for Jim Thorpe,” Darling said. “They will though. I just have a feeling, I think they will.”

Darling is an executive producer for a Jim Thorpe biopic, “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story.”

Bright Path, or Wa-Tho-Huk, is Thorpe’s given name before he was christened Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe. In the biographical film, Thorpe will be portrayed by Native actor Martin Sensmeier, Tlingit and Koyukon-Athabascan.

The feats of Thorpe’s athletic prowess are not hard to come by. On top of his Olympic triumphs, he played professional football and baseball simultaneously. Thorpe would also go on to become the NFL’s first commissioner.

One of the more well-known stories of Thorpe’s athleticism came from the aforementioned 1,500-meter race in the decathlon.

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Public domain image, courtesy the Penn Museum.

As the story goes, Thorpe’s shoes had gone missing from his bag before the race started. Decathlon rules state an athlete must compete in every event in order to be included in the final placing.

To avoid disqualification, Thorpe found two mismatched shoes to wear, one shoe a size too small and the other two sizes too big. After a slow start, Thorpe would go on to win the race by more than 25 yards and, ultimately, the gold medal.

Thorpe continues to be an inspiration for Native athletes and Darling believes the time is right to advocate for this change.

“We have to do this, not just for Jim Thorpe, but for the Jim Thorpe's that follow in our next seven generations,” Darling said. “And we do it for those in the generations that were with Jim Thorpe. We do it for them.”

She added it’s not too late to make this correction.

“Let's make this wrong, right. Let's get it on the right, bright path.” 

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email -

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