Jim Thorpe was good copy in his storied but troubled life. He remains so 66 years after his death.
Even with an impeachment inquiry of the president underway, New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland and 20 other members of the House of Representatives have found time to advocate for Thorpe’s legacy.
They have introduced a resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee to correct the record of his triumphs at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. The House members want Thorpe recognized as the sole gold medalist in the two events he won, the decathlon and pentathlon.
This might seem like a tangled and odd issue for Congress to undertake, given that it has no authority over what’s printed in a private organization’s record book. But Thorpe was a symbol to oppressed Native Americans, some of whom were denied the right to vote until 1957.
Haaland and other sponsors of the resolution hope their maneuver will bring a fresh round of attention to Thorpe. It’s a story worth knowing, despite the unappealing politics.
In the Olympics, Thorpe represented the United States as an enrolled member of the Sac and Fox Nation. Native Americans were not recognized as U.S. citizens until 1924. Bigotry against them was sweeping. News coverage about them often was filled with slurs and stereotypes.
Thorpe changed this, if only briefly. The Olympics turned him into a celebrated international figure, but soon caused him heartbreak and bitterness.
The Amateur Athletic Union in 1913 stripped him of his gold medals. Before competing in the Olympics, Thorpe had been paid perhaps $15 a week for playing semi-pro baseball. The AAU claimed this made him a professional athlete in a competition reserved for amateurs.
By taking away his medals, the AAU branded him as impure and devious. Thorpe died in 1953, but the character assassination against him continued long after.
Attitudes changed as the decades rolled by. The International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe’s medals in 1982. But the athletes who finished second to Thorpe are still listed as co-recipients of Olympic gold medals.
Taking away the medals of other long-departed athletes won’t make Thorpe any taller in the history books. But Haaland, a Democrat and member of the Pueblo of Laguna, sees the congressional resolution as a way to shine light on Thorpe’s accomplishments in a worldwide competition.
“Any person who has represented our country honorably and brought victory home for the United States in the Olympics is an American hero and should be recognized as one, but inherent biases took away that honor from Jim Thorpe,” she said.
Bo Jackson, who was an all-star in Major League Baseball and a feared running back in the National Football League, is the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen. Some people say Thorpe was almost as gifted. After winning gold medals in track and field’s most grueling events, he played in the major leagues and in the forerunner of the NFL.
Historical depictions, though, haven’t been especially kind to Thorpe, despite his excellence.
Hollywood chose Burt Lancaster, loaded with dark makeup, to portray Thorpe in a 1951 movie about his life. Thorpe died in 1953 and was buried in a Pennsylvania town he had never set foot in.
It was actually two towns that consolidated in hopes of making money off the corpse of a legend. Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk had been thriving railroad hubs for the anthracite coal industry. They had declined by the 1950s, but a booster working as a newspaper editor believed they could make a comeback by attaching themselves to Thorpe’s remains.
At the editor’s urging, residents of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk voted to merge in 1954 under the name of Jim Thorpe, Pa.
In a deal with Thorpe’s third wife, Patsy, the town provided a $10,000 mausoleum for Thorpe’s body. This was the first part of a plan to draw tourists, something that haunted Thorpe’s sons.
“Patsy took his body around and farmed him out to bidders,” son Bill Thorpe once told me. He was a soldier serving in Korea when his father died.
Residents of Jim Thorpe, Pa., believed Thorpe’s tomb would help their town land attractions, such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The NFL instead established the hall of fame in Canton, Ohio, where Thorpe had starred for the Canton Bulldogs.
I traveled to Jim Thorpe, Pa., in 2000 and broke a news story about a divide in the Thorpe family. Bill Thorpe and his two living brothers told me they wanted to move their father’s body back to his native Oklahoma. They considered the burial arrangement in Pennsylvania an affront, saying it did no justice to their father’s Sac and Fox roots.
Jim Thorpe’s two living daughters also spoke with me. They wanted his body to remain in Pennsylvania, satisfied that the town had done a good job of displaying Thorpe’s tomb.
Hard feelings about Thorpe’s burial place stretched into this decade, leading the sons to sue in an attempt to move his remains. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving Thorpe’s tomb in Pennsylvania.
Relatives who filed the suit said Thorpe can never rest in peace.
Haaland and the other members of Congress aren’t focused on his death. Using the power of politics, they hope to revive interest in how he lived.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.