Native American Olympians Honored including Jim Thorpe, Billy Mills, Duke Kahanamoku


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King Gustav: 'You sir are the greatest athlete in the world.' Jim Thorpe: 'Thanks, King.'

On the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games in which athletes Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), Duke Kahanamoku (pictured below)  (Native Hawaiian), Andrew Sockalexis (Penobscot) and Lewis Tewanima (Hopi) represented the United States in Stockholm, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian  in Washington D.C. offers the exhibit,  “Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics.”

In 1912, Thorpe swept both the pentathlon and decathlon at the Olympic Games, becoming the first and only Olympian to accomplish such a feat and earning the accolades of King Gustav V of Sweden, who proclaimed Thorpe to be “the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe was joined that year by fellow Native teammates Kahanamoku, who won the 100-meter freestyle; Sockalexis, who placed fourth in the marathon; and Tewanima, who won the silver medal and set an American record for the 10,000 meters that stood for more than 50 years until Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota, pictured below) won the gold medal in Tokyo in 1964.

A century later, the National Museum of the American Indian celebrates the legacy of the 1912 team and the path they paved for future generations of Native American athletes, including Clarence “Taffy” Abel (Ojibwe), who won a silver medal as part of the 1924 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team and later became the first U.S.-born player in the National Hockey League; Ellison Myers Brown (Narragansett), who ran the marathon at the 1936 Olympics; Sharon and Shirley Firth (Gwich’in), twin sisters who competed in the 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984 Games in cross-country skiing; Theoren Fleury (Métis/Cree), who won a gold medal in 2002 in ice hockey, and Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie (Métis), who won a silver medal in curling in 2010, among others. 

The exhibition will be on view through Sept. 3 in the museum’s Sealaska Gallery. It features the gold medals restored to Thorpe’s family in 1983 for his victory in the 1912 decathlon and pentathlon events. Thorpe’s medals will be on view at the museum through July 9, at which point they will travel to the London 2012 Summer Olympics Games, where they will be celebrated and displayed in front of millions of spectators.

The silver medal that Kahanamoku won in the 1912 Olympics will also be on display, as well as the gold medal won by Mills in the 1964 Games. The exhibition also features historic photographs of Native athletes competing in the Olympics, including rare images from the 1912 Games, and a commemorative Wheaties box that was released in 2001 to honor Thorpe as “The World’s Greatest Athlete.” Smithsonian magazine selected this object as its “National Treasure” in the June/July 2012 issue.

Thorpe at the 1912 Summer Olympics

For the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, two new multi-event disciplines were included, the pentathlon and the decathlon. A pentathlon based on the ancient Greek event had been organized at the 1906 Summer Olympics. The 1912 version consisted of the long jump, the javelin throw, 200-meter dash, the discus throw and the 1500-meter run.

Jim Thorpe at 1912 OlympicsThe decathlon was a relatively new event of modern athletics, although it had been part of American track meets since the 1880s and a version had been featured on the program of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. The events of the new decathlon differed slightly from the American version. Both events seemed appropriate for Thorpe, who was so versatile that he alone had constituted Carlisle's team in several track meets.He could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. He could long jump 23 ft 6 in and high-jump 6 ft 5 in. He could pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus 136 feet.

Thorpe entered the U.S. Olympic trials for both the pentathlon and the decathlon. He won the awards easily, winning three events, and was named to the pentathlon team, which also included future International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage. There were only a few candidates for the decathlon team, and the trials were canceled.

His schedule in the Olympics was busy. Along with the decathlon and pentathlon, he competed in the long jump and high jump. The first competition was the pentathlon; Thorpe won four of the five events and placed third in the javelin, an event in which he had not competed before 1912. Although the pentathlon was primarily decided on place points, points were also earned for the marks achieved in the individual events. He won the gold medal. The same day, Thorpe qualified for the high jump final. He placed fourth and also took seventh place in the long jump.

Thorpe's final event was the decathlon, his first—and as it turned out, only—Olympic decathlon. Strong competition from local favorite Hugo Wieslander was expected. Thorpe, however, easily defeated Wieslander by more than 700 points. He placed in the top four of all ten events. Thorpe's Olympic record of 8,413 points would stand for nearly two decades.Overall, Thorpe won eight of the 15 individual events of the pentathlon and decathlon.

As was the custom of the day, the medals were presented to the athletes during the closing ceremonies of the games. Along with the two gold medals, Thorpe also received two challenge prizes, which were donated by King Gustav V of Sweden for the decathlon and Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the pentathlon. Several sources recount that, when awarding Thorpe his prize, King Gustav said, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world," to which Thorpe replied, "Thanks, King."

Thorpe's successes had not gone unnoticed at home, and he was honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway.He remembered later, "I heard people yelling my name, and I couldn't realize how one fellow could have so many friends."

Apart from his track and field appearance, Thorpe also played in one of two exhibition baseball games at the 1912 Olympics, which featured two teams composed of U.S. track and field athletes. It was not Thorpe's first try at baseball, as the public would soon learn.

After his victories at the Olympic Games in Sweden, on September 2, 1912, Thorpe returned to Celtic Park, the home of the Irish American Athletic Club, in Queens, New York (where he had qualified four months earlier for the Olympic Games), to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union's All-Around Championship.

Competing against Bruno Brodd of the Irish American Athletic Club, and J. Bredemus of Princeton University, he won seven of the ten events contested, and came in second in the remaining three. With a total point score of 7,476 points, Thorpe broke the previous record of 7,385 points set in 1909, (also set at Celtic Park), by Martin Sheridan, the champion athlete of the Irish American Athletic Club. Sheridan, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, was present to watch his record broken, and approached Thorpe after the event. He shook his hand saying, "Jim my boy, you're a great man. I never expect to look upon a finer athlete." Sheridan told a reporter from The New York World, "Thorpe is the greatest athlete that ever lived. He has me beaten fifty ways. Even when I was in my prime, I could not do what he did today."

In 1913, strict rules regarding amateurism were in effect for athletes participating in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions, were sports teachers, or had competed previously against professionals, were not considered amateurs and were barred from competition.

In late January 1913, the Worcester Telegram published a story announcing that Thorpe had played professional baseball. Thorpe had indeed played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay; reportedly as little as $2 ($50 today) a game and as much as $35 ($873 today) a week. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally, but most used aliases, unlike Thorpe.

Although the public did not seem to care much about Thorpe's past, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and especially its secretary James Edward Sullivan, took the case very seriously. Thorpe wrote a letter to Sullivan, in which he admitted playing professional baseball:

His letter did not help. The AAU decided to withdraw Thorpe's amateur status retroactively and asked the International Olympic Commission (IOC) to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals, and awards, and declared him a professional.

Although Thorpe had played for money, the AAU and IOC did not follow the rules for disqualification. The rulebook for the 1912 Olympics stated that protests had to be made within 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the games. The first newspaper reports did not appear until January 1913, about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded.] There is also some evidence that Thorpe's amateur status had been questioned long before the Olympics, but the AAU had ignored the issue until being confronted with it in 1913.

The only positive element of this affair for Thorpe was that, as soon as the news was reported that he had been declared a professional, he received offers from professional sports clubs.

 Over the years, supporters of Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic titles reinstated. US Olympic officials, including former teammate and later president of the IOC Avery Brundage, rebuffed several attempts, with Brundage once saying, "Ignorance is no excuse." Most persistent were the author Robert Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon. They succeeded in having the AAU and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) overturn its decision and restore Thorpe's amateur status prior to 1913.

In 1982, Wheeler and Ridlon established the Jim Thorpe Foundation and gained support from the U.S. Congress. Armed with this support and evidence from 1912 proving that Thorpe's disqualification had occurred after the 30-day time period allowed by Olympics rules, they succeeded in making the case to the IOC. In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe's reinstatement. In an unusual ruling, they declared that Thorpe was co-champion with Bie and Wieslander, although both of these athletes had always said they considered Thorpe to be the only champion. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, the IOC presented two of Thorpe's children, Gale and Bill, with commemorative medals Thorpe's original medals had been held in museums, but they had been stolen and have never been recovered.

Thorpe's monument, featuring the quote from Gustav V ("You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."), still stands near the town named for him, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. The grave rests on mounds of soil from Thorpe's native Oklahoma and from the stadium in which he won his Olympic medals.

Thorpe's achievements received great acclaim from sports journalists, both during his lifetime and since his death. In 1950, an Associated Press poll of almost 400 sportswriters and broadcasters voted Thorpe the "greatest athlete" of the first half of the 20th century. That same year, the Associated Press named Thorpe the "greatest American football player" of the first half of the century. In 1999, the Associated Press placed him third on its list of the top athletes of the century, following Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan. ESPN ranked Thorpe seventh on their list of best North American athletes of the century.

Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, one of seventeen players in the charter class. Thorpe is memorialized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame rotunda with a larger-than-life statue. He was also inducted into halls of fame for college football, American Olympic teams, and the national track and field competition.

President Richard Nixon, as authorized by U.S. Senate Joint Resolution 73, proclaimed Monday, April 16, 1973 as "Jim Thorpe Day" to promote the nationwide recognition of Thorpe. In 1986, the Jim Thorpe Association established an award with Thorpe's name. The Jim Thorpe Award is given annually to the best defensive back in college football. The annual Thorpe Cup athletics meeting is named in his honor.

Kate Buford has written an excellent biography entitled: Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe ,  (Knopf).

Recently she posted these remarks about the book on her blog:

“Why read a biography of Jim Thorpe now? Bunch of reasons, but let's start with a few cued to 2012.

This year is the centennial of the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm when Thorpe, the American Indian out of nowhere, won gold medals in the pentathlon AND the decathlon. No other Olympian has ever done that in these multi-sport events made up of elemental feats that have been the foundation of all athletics since the ancient Greeks. Thorpe also won both by huge margins. Nobody would match them, either. Thorpe's Olympic time in the decathlon 1,500-meter race would hold until 1972. That's 60 years. Incredible. 

However, Thorpe's Olympic time and distance records are not official. They were stricken from the record in 1913 when it was revealed that he had played minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. As doping is now, professionalism -- taking money for playing sports -- was the threshold issue back then, especially for the Olympics. Amateurism was pretty much bogus, but it ruled the day (read Native American Son to learn more). The Thorpe affair was the mother of all sports scandals, still rated at the top by the 2011 WORLD ALMANAC.

Thorpe's records were never put back. Oh, yes, there was a sort of posthumous  "reinstatement" by the IOC in 1982. The supposed happy ending. Thorpe was re-entered by the IOC as a "competitor" in the 1912 Games and listed as a co-gold medal winner with the original second-place athletes who had been promoted to first place when Thorpe was erased. Duplicate medals were cast from the original mold and given to his children. But the "record" was not changed. 

Result: two "official" gold medal winners of both complex, multi-sport events, an absurdity. Thorpe's individual performances in each event were kept off the record probably because if they were reinstated, the co-winner status would look even more bizarre. Sports Illustratedcalled the whole mess the ultimate asterisk in sports. The first international celebrity athlete, the first Olympic super-star, remains today, a century later, a phantom contender, there but not there. 

Thorpe's demotion in 1913 reverberated around the world for months, years and decades. He was seen by just about everybody except the AAU and the IOC as the outsider made scapegoat to an elitist and exclusionary ideal.       

But the Swedes had shown the world how to put on a proper Olympiad when the whole idea of an international multi-sports event was new. The four Olympiads prior to Stockholm had ranged from rudimentary to disastrous. It was by no means certain that this movement begun by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 would survive (the 1916 Games were supposed to take place in Berlin). Without the beautifully organized and successful Stockholm Games 100 years ago, we might not be looking forward to London this summer. 

Equally important to the survival of the modern Olympic movement in 1912 was Jim Thorpe. He glamorized the Games. He thrilled the world with a series of athletic performances that set a standard sports fans would anticipate every four years (except during World Wars) since. 

2012 twist: Thorpe did those 15 events in Stockholm without the aid of any enhancement drug or even the level of training his competitors enjoyed. The machine of his own body, aided by his ability to observe and then mimic the best athletes around him, was enough. More than enough.”


Visit your local library to find these resources:

Bibliography prepared by Alex Gould.

Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe
Kate Buford, (2010).

All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe
 Bill Crawford, (2005).

McGraw of the Giants: An Informal Biography.
Frank Graham, (1944).

The Sac and Fox Indians
William T.Hagan, (1958).

Custer In Photographs
Mark. D. Katz, (1985).

Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete
Robert W.Wheeler , (1979).

Jim Thorpe and the Oorang Indians: The N.F.L.’s Most Colorful Franchise
Whitman, Robert L. Ph. D., (1984).

 Jim Thorpe: Athlete of the Century A Pictorial History
Whitman, Robert L. Ph. D. , (2002).

The Indian Industrial School: Carlisle, Pennsylvania 1879 – 1918. Carlisle,
 Linda F.Witmer, (1993).

Thorpe as backfield coach for Indiana, 1915

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