The Washington Post
An Olympic injustice, corrected
More than a century late but better late than never, the Olympic powers-that-be at long last have restored Jim Thorpe to his deserved place in sports history. The records he set and gold medals he won in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics are official now, his alone, 69 years after he died of a heart attack in a trailer home in Southern California, broke and lonely, if not forgotten.
As a member of the Sac and Fox Nation who grew up in the Indian Territory of what would become Oklahoma, and who burst into athletic stardom at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, Thorpe endured more than his share of indignities during his life, before and after he earned the title of “greatest athlete in the world” at the Summer Games in Sweden. But the loss of his records and medals was the one that hurt him most, setting Thorpe and his family and supporters on a long and at times seemingly futile quest for simple justice.
There are those who would argue, as his nemesis Avery Brundage and other Olympic officials did for decades, that rules are rules and Thorpe broke amateur regulations by competing for about 30 bucks a month in the summers of 1909 and 1910 as a baseball player for Rocky Mount and Fayetteville in the Eastern Carolina League.
That argument was specious from the beginning on technical grounds, defied common sense and public sentiment, and was surrounded by a series of deceitful and hypocritical actions by powerful men who lied to protect their own reputations.
The rules of the Stockholm Games required that challenges to an athlete’s amateur standing had to be filed with Swedish authorities within 60 days of the end of the Games. The decision by the Amateur Athletic Union and American Olympic Committee to return Thorpe’s medals and trophies and seek rescission of his records came six months later, well beyond the deadline. That alone should have absolved him. But there was so much more to the situation than that.
The decision to erase Thorpe’s brilliance at Stockholm came after the Worcester Telegram “broke” the story on Jan. 21, 1913, by interviewing Charles Clancy, one of his former managers in baseball’s bush leagues who happened to be spending the winter at a relative’s house in Massachusetts.
“Broke” belongs in quotation marks because Thorpe’s seasons in the Eastern Carolina League were never a secret. He played under his own name during an era when hundreds of college athletes were playing pro ball during the summers under aliases. Two years of box scores and game accounts documented Thorpe’s baseball days long before he left for Stockholm.
How could key officials not know this? The evidence indicates that they did know but claimed ignorance and innocence while presenting themselves as Thorpe’s moral superiors. This group included Pop Warner, the football and track and field coach at Carlisle; Moses Friedman, the boarding school’s superintendent; and James E. Sullivan, who led the American delegation to Stockholm and was the key player in the decision to rescind Thorpe’s medals.
Warner’s athletes had been playing summer ball for years before Thorpe and two of his Carlisle teammates headed south. They were lured to Rocky Mount by a scout from Pennsylvania who was a close associate of Warner’s. During the two years that Thorpe was away from school, he met with Warner at least twice, and it requires a willing suspension of disbelief to think they did not discuss what Thorpe was doing, especially since Warner was losing more football games without him in his backfield. (Thorpe was a future first-team All-american, and went on to play professional football and major-league baseball.)
Yet Warner claimed that he knew nothing until the story reached him from Worcester. The letter Thorpe sent to Olympic officials confessing to his sin was in fact ghost-written by Warner as a means of clearing his, not Thorpe’s, involvement.
Documents reveal that Friedman knew what Thorpe was doing from the beginning and tried to talk him out of playing summer baseball, an activity that is recorded on his Carlisle records. Yet Friedman, too, denied foreknowledge.
Sullivan, in charge of determining eligibility for the U.S. Olympic squad, claimed that newspaper reports of Thorpe’s baseball seasons never reached him in New York. He blamed the baseball people in North Carolina who unpatriotically did not “for the honor of their country come forward” beforehand. Perhaps, but Sullivan was also on the Carlisle Athletic Association’s board of advisers and, like Warner, would have had every reason to take an interest in the whereabouts of the school’s star athlete.
In his official letter returning Thorpe’s medals and trophies to the Olympic organizers, Sullivan attributed Thorpe’s actions to the notion that he was “an Indian of limited experience and education in the way of other than his own people.”
It was a disparaging description that misrepresented Thorpe’s life and training but was in keeping with a common misperception of Native Americans that persisted through the centuries. Thorpe himself looked at it differently. “I adopted a fatalistic viewpoint,” he later wrote, “and considered the episode just another event in the red man’s life of ups and downs.”
Down for decades too long. Now, at last, up again.