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Case study, movie on cause to restore Jim Thorpe’s title

Sac & Fox and Potawatomi Native American, two-time Olympic gold medalist, first president, co-founder and star of what was to become the National Football League, and Major League Baseball player - these titles all belong to Jim Thorpe.

The title of sole Olympic gold medalist in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, however, have eluded him for over a century.

The movement continues nationally, but it has interest locally as the town known as Mauch Chunk embraced the athlete and his remains. Mauch Chunk changed its name in 1954 to honor Thorpe. He is buried in a 20-ton mausoleum on Route 903.

In January, a case study from The Doug Williams Center will be available for download at dougwilliamscenter.com to support a Bright Path Strong petition to reinstate Thorpe as the sole gold medalist for the events he won in those games.

Thorpe’s gold medals were revoked after it was discovered that he violated strict rules regarding amateurism. The medals were reinstated in 1982. However, Thorpe was only recognized as a co-gold medal winner with the athletes who were elevated to gold medal status after his medals were revoked.

State Rep. Doyle Heffley and Jim Thorpe’s grandson John Thorpe have been strong local advocates for the reinstatement of the Olympian’s sole gold medal status. Heffley introduced a state House of Representatives resolution in 2020 pushing for the change.

“I believe the time is long overdue to reinstate one of our nation’s greatest athletes as the rightful winner of these two Olympic events,” Heffley said at the time.

To compose the case study, the center partnered with Thorpe biographer Bob Wheeler and Dr. Florence Ridlon, Jim Thorpe Foundation co-founders and honorary board members of Bright Path Strong, a nonprofit organization created in honor of Thorpe to amplify authentic Native American voices, past and present.

They write that racism played a role in stripping Thorpe, a world-class athlete in 22 sports, of his rightful recognition.

Ridlon, a technical adviser, and Wheeler, an executive producer for the forthcoming movie on Thorpe, released a statement. “We have spent the last 50 years of our lives trying to correct the worst injustice in sports history - Jim Thorpe having his Olympic gold medals and records illegally taken away. In 1983, the International Olympic Committee, restored duplicate medals to Thorpe’s family and his name to their official record book but listed him as a co-champion.

“The deep-seated injustices we examined throughout Jim Thorpe’s career are an ominous reminder of the numerous wrongs against the Native American community that must be acknowledged and rectified. We are committed to telling his story and hopeful that this research will open the door for more solutions and healing in our nation,” Brandon A. Logan, Doug Williams Center executive director, said.

An effort led by Bright Path Strong for the recognition of Thorpe’s achievements includes a petition campaign, a movie whose producers include Angelina Jolie, and working with IOC representative to the U.S. Anita DeFrantz, who supports the full reinstatement of Thorpe.

The International Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of the medals in 1913, saying he had been paid to play minor league baseball before the Olympics took place. The committee’s bylaws, however, stated grievances had to be filed within 30 days. The challenge to Thorpe’s victories took six months.

“It’s time to finally right a terrible wrong,” John Thorpe said in October 2020 while visiting the mausoleum where his grandfather is buried off Route 903. “Everyone knows who won those events. Hugo Wieslander didn’t even want the gold medal because he knew grandpa beat him. He tried to give it to grandpa and the Olympic committee wouldn’t let him.”

Nedra Darling (Prairie Band Potawatomi), co-founder of Bright Path Strong and executive producer for the movie said, “Jim Thorpe was the ultimate competitor at a time when the playing field was anything but even. He fought racism and inequity, and as a Native American in 1912, he was not even recognized as a citizen of this country. Yet, Jim still overcame every obstacle with grace, dignity and determination to become the greatest athlete in the world.”

Times News archives contributed to this article.

John Thorpe burns sage at the grave of his grandfather, Jim Thorpe, in October 2020. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO
Jim Thorpe's statue near his final resting place.