Winning an Olympic medal is one of the greatest feats elite athletes strive for. For those that don’t achieve the honor, it’s heartbreaking. For the few who reach and then lose their awards, it’s even worse. Native American Jim Thorpe knew that heartbreak. Two gold medals were stripped from him. Today, the man considered by many as the greatest all-around athlete ever has been reinstated as the winner of both events.
A lot can change in 110 years. Take Olympic rules for amateur athletes, for example. In 1912, professional athletes weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics. Months after winning the pentathlon (five-event competition) and decathlon (10-event competition), it was discovered that Jim Thorpe had been paid to play two seasons of minor league baseball. That’s all it took to qualify him as a “professional.” It’s also all it took to disqualify him from Olympic competition. In 1913, his two gold medals were stripped.
Thorpe’s loss elevated Sweden’s Hugo Wieslander to decathlon winner and Norway’s Ferdinand Bie to pentathlon gold—for almost a century.
In 1982—29 years after Thorpe’s death—the International Olympic Counsel (IOC) gave duplicate gold medals to Thorpe’s family. But his Olympic records were not reinstated. Then in 1988, IOC rules changed. The committee opened the door for athletes with professional histories to compete at the Games.
Two years ago, the Bright Path Strong petition began. It advocated declaring Thorpe the outright winner of the 1912 events.
Thorpe’s Native American name, Wa-Tho-Huk, means “Bright Path.” The organization enlisted the help of IOC member Anita DeFrantz. They contacted the Swedish Olympic Committee and Hugo Wieslander’s family.
“They confirmed that Wieslander himself had never accepted the Olympic gold medal allocated to him, and had always been of the opinion that Jim Thorpe was the sole legitimate Olympic gold medalist,” the IOC says. It added that the Swedish Olympic Committee agreed.
“The same declaration was received from the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports,” the IOC continues, referring to Bie’s performance. And that prompted a change: reinstatement.
Bie now will be listed as the pentathlon silver medalist, and Wieslander as silver in the decathlon.
“We are so grateful this nearly 110-year-old injustice has finally been corrected, and there is no confusion about the most remarkable athlete in history,” says Nedra Darling, Bright Path Strong’s co-founder.
The IOC announced the reversal on the 110th anniversary of Thorpe’s decathlon victory. World Athletics, the governing body of track and field, has also agreed to amend its records, the IOC says.
Why? It’s important to recognize the achievements and God-given abilities of others, and to remember an optimistic and grace-filled approach to managing disagreements.