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Remembering first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal, Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe.jpg
Library of Congress
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Jim Thorpe, New York Giants at Polo Grounds, New York. Photograph by the Bain News Service, 1913.

Jim Thorpe was born into the Sac and Fox tribe in 1887 in present day Oklahoma. But his life was quickly plagued with death when his brother died of pneumonia at the age of nine and his mother passed away from childbirth two years later.

Thorpe ran away and lived on his own for a while before being sent to Pennsylvania, where he attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. There, he met coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, who would change his life forever. Warner saw Thorpe’s potential and he began running for the school's track team and soon began playing football where he was named All-American for two years.

His running skills earned him a spot at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he won two gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon.

Unfortunately, Thorpe’s medals were stripped from him under Olympic regulations that barred athletes who received professional pay. Thorpe was paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball

Despite this setback, Thorpe continued his baseball career; playing in the Major Leagues in 1913 for the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Braves. In his later career he went back to play football for the Canton Bulldogs.

In 1920 he was named the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which two years later would become the NFL.

Jim Thorpe died on March 28, 1953, at the age of 64 of a heart attack in Lomita, California.

In January 1983, the International Olympic Committee hosted a ceremony indicating a symbolic return of Thorpe’s medals to two of his sons, Gale and Bill.

This past July marks the 110th anniversary of Thorpe’s Olympic win and the International Olympic Committee made a historic decision to display his name as the sole gold medallist in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games, thus solidifying Jim Thorpe as the first Native American to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

Sources:

IOC to display the name of Jim Thorpe as sole Stockholm 1912 pentathlon and decathlon gold medallist- International Olympic Committee

Jim Thorpe and his “Bright path,” the story behind the Native American- UNANIMO Deportes

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s currently a part of the Local News Fund Fellowship where she will be working with KUNM-FM and NMPBS during her 9-month fellowship where she will gain hands-on newsroom experience. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.
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