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Do you know the real story of Jim Thorpe, a 1912 Olympic record-holder with a Hall of Fame football career?
Pictureworks Entertainment is working to change that with a new feature film, “Bright Path,” about his life, and now a petition with several Native American tribes to restore his status with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a sole gold medalist. The movement is to help “take back what was stolen” from the United States’ first Native American Olympic champion.
“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 groups wrote in the petition.
Thorpe, who was part of a Native American tribe from Oklahoma and died in 1953, shattered records in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. At the time, Native Americans were not considered U.S. citizens. And six months after winning gold, the IOC took his medal after it found out he had been paid to play minor league baseball before the Games.
Thorpe’s record 1912 Olympics
Thorpe set records while winning the medals as the first Native American to win gold for the U.S. He was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation and was born Wa-Tho-Huk, translated to “Bright Path.”
The pentathlon consisted of five events in a single day and he placed first in four of them.
At the three-day decathlon he placed in the top four of all 10 events, winning by a 688-point margin with 8,413 total points. It was a point total that stood for nearly two decades. And he did it after his shoes went missing and mismatched ones were procured for him to use.
He took first in the 100-meter dash by 11.2 seconds. That mark wasn’t bested until 1948, same as the 110-meter hurdles that he won in 15.6 seconds.
Sweden’s King Gustav V declared him the “world’s greatest athlete.”
IOC stripped Thorpe of gold, later reinstated honors
The IOC stripped him of the medals in 1913 and took his marks off the official record book after learning he violated its amateurism rules and played minor league baseball in 1909-10. The pay amounted to room and board.
He did not campaign to keep the medals, per the Smithsonian Magazine, and didn’t fight the decision. This despite IOC rules dictating that reviews had to be within 30 days of the event. Via the Smithsonian Magazine:
“I won ’em, and I know I won ’em,” he told his daughter Grace Thorpe. On another occasion he said, “I played with the heart of an amateur — for the pure hell of it.”
It took until October 1982, seventy years after Stockholm, for the IOC to succumb to public pressure and reinstate Thorpe’s gold. The organization gave two replica medals to the family and added Thorpe back to the list of medalists. But it also let the second-place winners hold their golds, titles and “winning” marks.
“However, the official report for these Games will not be modified,” the IOC announced.
Thorpe’s records were not included in the official books, essentially wiping away his superiority and ignoring an athletic achievement by a Native American.
Native American groups call on IOC to restore sole-winner status
The petition was launched by Pictureworks Entertainment with Native American tribes, the National Congress of American Indians and Thorpe’s descendants.
Per the petition:
Native Americans have been invariably impacted by the ever-climbing barriers and setbacks of racism in the U.S., and the world of sports is no different. From more than a decade in government run boarding schools where every vestige of his identity and culture were attempted to be taken from him, to travel accommodations far inferior to his white Olympic teammates, to having his track shoes stolen minutes before the decathlon's final race, to racist depictions in media downplaying his athletic achievements, Jim Thorpe had to overcome one racially motivated trial after another — and still managed to break world records.
The petition will help support a resolution introduced by U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico She introduced it in November 2019 with 20 co-sponsors.
“This petition is an effort to gather over one million names and voices united in support of Jim and American athletic excellence and Native American resilience,” Pictureworks Entertainment executive producer Nedra Darling said in a statement. “In a time where Americans, and arguably people all around the world are confronting their long-held discriminatory beliefs and behaviors, this is a tremendous opportunity for the IOC to get on the right side of history.”
Thorpe’s impact on American sports record books went far beyond the 1912 Olympics. He played at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania and drew the attention of Glenn “Pop” Warner.
As the star player and coach, Thorpe led the Canton Bulldogs to three unofficial football world championships in 1916, ’17 and ’19 before becoming a league president when the NFL was organized in 1920. He was also an MLB star in the 1910s and played basketball.
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