Jim Thorpe during the 1912 Olympic decathlon (© Getty Images)
More than a century later, the great Native American athlete Jim Thorpe has been reinstated as the one and only champion of the pentathlon and decathlon events at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.
The International Olympic Committee announced today (15) that Thorpe would be recognised as the sole gold medallist – rather than co-winner – of both multi-discipline events. The decision came on the 110th anniversary of Thorpe’s victory in the decathlon.
Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation who was born Wa-tho-huck, or Bright Path, won both events in Stockholm in dominant fashion. King Gustav V of Sweden presented him with the gold medals and famously told him: “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe replied: “Thanks, King.”
But, a few months later in 1913, Thorpe was stripped of the medals and removed from the record books after it was revealed he had previously played minor league baseball, a violation of the strict amateurism rules of the time.
While the IOC restored Thorpe’s victories and presented replica medals posthumously to his family in 1983, it only recognised him as co-winner of the events, leaving his titles to be shared with the two athletes who had been elevated to first place after his disqualification.
Now, Thorpe will be listed as the sole gold medallist, while Ferdinand Bie of Norway (pentathlon) and Hugo Wielander of Sweden (decathlon) will be moved to silver medals. James Donahue of the United States and Frank Lukeman of Canada will keep the silver and bronze medals they were awarded when the results were amended in 1913. The same will apply to Sweden’s Charles Lomberg (silver) and Gosta Holmer (bronze) in the decathlon.
The move came after a campaign by the Bright Path advocacy group, supported by senior US IOC member Anita DeFrantz, to make full amends by crowning Thorpe as the outright champion in both events. In an op-ed in the Washington Post last year, DeFrantz described the disqualification of Thorpe as “one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in sports history” and “a stinging episode of early 20th century bigotry”.
“We welcome the fact that, thanks to the great engagement of Bright Path Strong, a solution could be found,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “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.”
In July 2021, Thorpe was made a recipient of the World Athletics Heritage Plaque in the posthumous category of 'Legend'. The plaque was unveiled this year in the Stockholm Olympic stadium and will remain on permanent public display.
Thorpe was a legendary all-around sports star at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, excelling in football and track and field.
In Stockholm, he easily won the pentathlon by finishing first in four of the five events and he set a world record of 8412 points in the decathlon, beating Wieslander by nearly 400 points. He also finished tied for fourth in the individual high jump and seventh in the long jump.
Thorpe was hailed as an international star and he and his teammates received a ticker tape parade on Broadway in New York City on their return from Stockholm.
In January 1913, a Massachusetts newspaper reported that Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball in North Carolina in 1909 and 1910. He received a meagre pay of a few dollars a week.
The report led US officials from the Amateur Athletic Union to demand that Thorpe’s amateur status and Olympic victories be revoked. He was retroactively declared a professional and the IOC withdrew his titles, records and trophies.
Thorpe went on to carve out an illustrious career in major league baseball and professional football. He is still considered by many as the best all-around athlete in modern sports history. Thorpe was named the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century by The Associated Press and was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. He died in 1953 at the age of 64.
Following a campaign by his family and supporters, the IOC approved the restoration of Thorpe’s titles in 1982. In January 1983, commemorative medals were presented to two of Thorpe’s children at a ceremony in Los Angeles.
For Thorpe’s supporters, the move made only partial amends. They wouldn’t rest until the record books showed that he was the outright champion.
The IOC said the Swedish Olympic Committee and Wieslander’s surviving family members confirmed that he had never accepted the decathlon gold medal allocated to him and always believed that Thorpe was the sole legitimate gold medallist. The Norwegian Olympic Committee also declared that Thorpe, not Bie, should be the pentathlon gold medallist.
Steve Wilson for World Athletics