The severity of his violation has long been debated, as college athletes in those days often played baseball for cash but did so under assumed names. Thorpe, a Native American of the Sac and Fox Nation, was not familiar with the practice of using a different name and used his own, making it easy for newspapers to track down the violation.
The decision comes after years of public pressure and advocacy, most recently by the Bright Path Strong organization and Anita DeFrantz, a longtime IOC member. It also comes with the support of the surviving family members of Hugo K. Wieslander, who was named the decathlon champion when Thorpe was stripped of his title, and the Swedish Olympic Committee.
“We welcome the fact that, thanks to the great engagement of Bright Path Strong, a solution could be found,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement. “This is a most exceptional and unique situation, which has been addressed by an extraordinary gesture of fair play from the National Olympic Committees concerned.”
While the IOC often does not change official records, the circumstances and pressure from powerful figures such as DeFrantz, made this decision easier for Olympic leaders.
“Even the athletes themselves [in the decathlon and pentathlon] said, ‘He is the champion, don’t give the medal to us,’” Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said Friday in a phone interview.
Wallechinsky, whose father, Irving Wallace, ghostwrote a series of magazine articles with Thorpe not long before the athlete’s death in 1953, called Thorpe “the greatest athlete of the 20th century.”
In addition to Thorpe’s decathlon and pentathlon victories, he finished fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump at the Stockholm Games. He also played six years of major league baseball and another six seasons of professional football where he was a running back, end and kicker.
“He even was a champion ballroom dancer,” Wallechinsky said.
Thorpe’s life was hard, however, with the Olympic victories being the highlight. He returned home from Stockholm to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York, a moment that so moved him he later told Wallace: “I had people yelling my name, I couldn’t realize how one fellow could have so many friends.”
When the news broke in 1913 that he had violated the IOC and Amateur Athletic Union’s amateurism rules, Thorpe wrote to the AAU, Wallechinsky said, hoping to be “partially exempt because I was in Indian schooling,” and wasn’t sophisticated about the ways to conceal the fact he was playing minor league baseball for money.
Avery Brundage, a dominating leader of American Olympic sports through the mid 20th century and the IOC’s president for 20 years, strongly opposed returning Thorpe’s gold medals. Brundage was known as a strict enforcer of amateurism rules but also Thorpe’s teammate in 1912, finishing sixth in the pentathlon.
In 1982, seven years after Brundage’s death, the IOC presented replica gold medals to Thorpe’s family but refused to change the record, listing him as a co-winner of the events — until Friday.
Over the years, critics called on the IOC to make Thorpe the sole winner. An online petition to correct the record garnered over 75,000 signatures. In 2021, DeFrantz wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that the 1913 decision was not only “one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in sports history” but also “a stinging episode of early 20th-century bigotry.”
“We welcome this news and are thrilled to honor Jim Thorpe, a great Olympic champion on the anniversary of his incredible achievement,” Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said in a statement. “We offer our sincere thanks to Anita DeFrantz, the Bright Path Strong organization, and all who worked tirelessly toward this solution.”
Olympic records will now show Thorpe as the sole gold medalist in pentathlon and decathlon, Wieslander as the silver medal winner in the decathlon and Norway’s Ferdinand Bie as the second-place finisher in the pentathlon.