- Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a New York Times best-selling author (“Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History”) and a contributor to “ABC World News Tonight” and “Nightline.”
Jim Thorpe, stripped of his 1912 gold medals because he’d been paid to play minor league baseball, was reinstated Thursday as the sole winner of that year’s Olympic decathlon and pentathlon by the International Olympic Committee.
Thorpe, voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century by The Associated Press, won the decathlon and pentathlon at the Stockholm Olympics. However, because he had played minor league baseball in 1909-10 — earning a reported $2 per game to $35 per week — he was stripped of the medals in 1913 for violating the existing amateurism rules. The Amateur Athletic Union in the United States withdrew Thorpe’s amateur status, and the IOC unanimously stripped Thorpe for being a professional.
The decision has been controversial ever since, especially to Native American communities. Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, and was the first Native American to win a gold medal.
After years of lobbying, the IOC Executive Committee reinstated Thorpe in October 1982, but said he was the co-champion with Hugo Wieslander (decathlon) and Ferdinand Bie (pentathlon). On Thursday, he was restored as the sole champion.
“This is a most exceptional and unique situation,” IOC president Thomas Bach said. “It is addressed by an extraordinary gesture of fair play from the concerned National Olympic Committees.”
“We are so grateful his nearly 110-year-old injustice has finally been corrected, and there is no confusion about the most remarkable athlete in history,” said Nedra Darling, the co-founder of Bright Path Strong, a group created to share Native American voices and a leading organization that fought for Thorpe — who died in 1953 — to regain his medals. She is also a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.
“Jim Thorpe is a hero across Indian Country, and he is an American hero,” she said. “He represented this country before it even recognized Native Americans as citizens, and he did so with humility and grace. Even after he was wronged by his coach, the American Athletic Union, and many others, he never gave in to bitterness and led with a spirit of generosity and kindness. I pray that Jim, his family, and our ancestors are celebrating that the truth has been respoken today, on this 110th anniversary of Jim being awarded his Olympic gold medals.”
A petition on the Bright Path Strong website, asking the IOC to reinstate Thorpe as sole champion in both events, drew 75,000 signatures.
The news of Thorpe’s reinstatement was first reported by Indian Country Today.
Thorpe played professional baseball with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. He returned to football with the Canton Bulldogs, and was a member of the NFL’s first all-decade team in 1931. He retired from professional football in 1928 at the age of 41, and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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