When Greatness Isn’t Enough: Olympian Jim Thorpe’s Struggle Against Discrimination

Jim Thorpe was one of the most versatile athletes in history and the first Native American to win gold at the Olympics.

108 years ago, in 1912, American athlete Jim Thorpe made history by becoming the first Native American to win gold for the United States in the decathlon. He placed top four in all ten events setting an Olympic record of 8,413 points at the Stockholm Olympics. However his life was made difficult by the discrimination he faced for being a successful Native American in a country that did not celebrate diversity.

Today many consider Jim Thorpe to be one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. His win in the decathlon demonstrated his talent for athletics. A decathlon is set over a long 48 hours, and athletes compete in ten events. These include the 100-meter dash, the long jump, shot put, high jump, a 400-meter run, 110-meter hurdle, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and a mile run. The event takes peak athleticism and endurance. Thorpe not only excelled at the decathlon, he won a gold medal in the pentathlon the same year, and he played football, basketball, and baseball professionally. However, though he seemed to have it all, he still faced a great deal of adversities. Controversy would arise over his baseball career because he had played two seasons of professional baseball prior. This violated the amateurism rules of the Olympics, and in 1913, the IOC would strip his medals from him.

Despite his athletic abilities, Thorpe’s life was not easy. He was living in an age of discrimination and racial inequality. His status as a Native American left him a victim of racism all his life. It is very likely that the IOC’s actions against him had more to do with his race, then with his amateur status. This would largely reflect the views of the general public at the time. Even though Native Americans had been living in America long before Europeans came to claim it as their own, by the 20th century, Native Americans still were not recognized as US citizens. It would take twelve years after Thorpe’s gold medal win in 1912 for Native Americans to be granted US citizenship. All his life Thorpe was singled out for his nationality. One New York Times Article read “Indian Thorpe in Olympiad; Redskin from Carlisle Will Strive for Place on American Team”.

Later in his life, Thorpe would go on to become the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which would later become the NFL. He continued to play professional sports up until the age of 41. Sadly, Thorpe’s career would be hit hard by the Great Depression. Thorpe struggled to make ends meet following that, and in his last years he suffered from alcoholism and poverty. He passed away in 1953 at the age of 65.

Thorpe accomplished things many only dream of being able to do. During his lifetime he was not given the support and celebration he deserved. However, today we recognize Thorpe as an astonishing role model not only for being the first Native American to win gold, but also for being able to excel in every major US sport. Thirty years following his death, the IOC would reinstate all his Olympic medals.

 

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When Greatness Isn’t Enough: Olympian Jim Thorpe’s Struggle Against Discrimination