History is often shared through generational stories among Native American families.
Jim Thorpe’s journey was not reported solely by word of mouth. His talents were well known around the world and many considered the Sac and Fox Nation member the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
On Friday – 110 years after Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm – he was reinstated as the sole winner of the events after a long controversy surrounding his triumphs.
Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 gold medals because he was paid to play minor league baseball in 1909-10, which violated the rules of amateurism.
Friday’s news drew cheers across Indian country, including from Billy Mills. A member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation, Mills won the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
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“I was so, so touched and so thrilled,” Mills told Tulsa World from his home in Fair Oaks, Calif., on Saturday. “I had tears of joy. I just took the moment to enjoy the scream.
Thorpe was a pioneer for Native American athletes like Mills, who explained how much he admired the winner of the 1912 Olympics.
“He had a different impact on me than probably 99.999% of people. They all consider Jim Thorpe a hero. I never considered Jim a hero. I watched it on a much higher plateau,” Mills said.
“He was so big in my mind. He was like an Olympic god. In my youth, I was intrigued by Greek mythology. Zeus was an Olympic god… This is where Jim Thorpe resides. He dwells on top of Mount Olympus with the great Olympic champions and the Olympic gods and Zeus. The impact he constantly had was not like a hero, but like a god.
Thorpe’s accomplishments include careers in Major League Baseball and the National Football League, of which he became the first president in 1922.
It was Thorpe’s Olympic success that captured the world’s attention. In 1912, the man born in Indian Territory now known as Oklahoma won gold medals for the decathlon and pentathlon.
But it was his participation in minor league baseball that caused the International Olympic Committee to strip Thorpe of his Olympic medals.
In 1982, the IOC returned replica gold medals to the Thorpe family and named him co-champion of official records. He shared winner status with Sweden’s Hugo Wieslander (decathlon) and Norway’s Ferdinand Bie (pentathlon).
Nedra Darling is co-founder of Bright Path Strong, an organization that spent years trying to make Thorpe the sole winner of those 1912 gold medals.
A graduate of Central High School who now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, she helped lead the campaign to collect more than 75,000 signatures on an online petition. Support was overwhelming from entities ranging from the National Congress of American Indians to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Her parents, Marcel and Cherie Darling were close friends and neighbors of Thorpe in the 1930s when they lived in Los Angeles, which helped give Nedra Darling even more initiative to help the movement.
“We wanted Jim Thorpe’s records set right,” Darling said. “It had been wronged by the IOC and we wanted them to regain their official Olympic gold status.”
When news of Thorpe broke, it caught the world’s attention. Darling hopes it will also touch this current generation of Native American athletes who may not know his story.
“As I learned more about Jim Thorpe and the way he was, he was such an amazing man. He was humble but very kind and a strategic athlete,” Darling said.
“I hope that with what he gave us in his strength and now reinstituted with his official Olympic victories, we can share his story with young people so they know he was this great American athlete.
“We knew that in Oklahoma. We never thought he wasn’t in Indian country. But now he truly is an iconic gold medal-winning Olympian.