Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Individual Development and Identity • Science, Technology, and Society

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King Gustav V of Sweden puts a gold medal around Jim Thorpe’s neck in 1912.


An Olympic Legacy Restored

Jim Thorpe has long been considered one of the world’s greatest athletes. During the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, he became the first Native American to win gold for the United States. Thorpe took home two gold medals in track and field events—one for the pentathlon and one for the decathlon. 

Until recently, however, his accomplishments have gone largely unrecognized. That’s because a few months after the Olympics, Thorpe’s medals were taken away due to a technicality. But this past July, more than a century later, the athlete’s Olympic titles were fully restored.

Major Controversy 

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Jim Thorpe won the decathlon in mismatched shoes after his went missing.

Thorpe—whose Native name, Wa-Tho-Huk, means Bright Path­—was a sports superstar in the early 1900s. He was celebrated on the world stage for his Olympic triumph and welcomed home with a ticker tape parade in New York City. Already a top college football athlete, he went on to play professional football and baseball. 

But life off the field was anything but easy for Thorpe. Growing up as a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation, he faced discrimination because of his heritage. He was sent to schools designed to strip Native children and teens of their culture. And, like most Native Americans, he was denied U.S. citizenship until 1924. 

Thorpe’s supporters say that such discrimination carried over into his Olympics controversy. In 1913, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) took away Thorpe’s medals and erased his records because he had earned some money playing minor-league baseball a few years earlier. This violated the IOC’s amateurism rules at that time, which didn’t allow professional athletes to compete in the Olympics.

Righting a Wrong

For decades, Thorpe’s fans pleaded his case. The IOC restored his medals in 1982, nearly 30 years after his death, but didn’t list Thorpe as the rightful winner—until now. “We’re all just so happy,” his granddaughter, Anita Thorpe, told The Oklahoman. “It’s 110 years in the making.”

Carrying the Torch

Hannah Peters/Getty Images for World Athletics

In July, hammer thrower Janee’ Kassanavoid became the first Native American woman to win a medal at the World Athletics Championships. During the track and field competition in Eugene, Oregon, Kassanavoid celebrated the news about Thorpe. She pledged to follow in his footsteps and “inspire and empower” future athletes. 

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