Oklahoma’s Greatest Athlete Reinstated In Olympics History
Aside from oil and gas, one of Oklahoma's greatest exports has been great athletes since attaining statehood in 1907. When you talk about sports history in the grand scheme of the Sooner State a lot of names come up.
Gold Medalist Shannon Miller, famed Yankee Mickey Mantle, SWOK's own Darrell Royal, and even Lawton's NFL Hall of Famer Will Shields, but one name stands above them all... Jim Thorpe.
If you grew up in Oklahoma, you've likely already heard the famous tales of Jim Thorpe and his conquering of adversity. If you haven't, here it is.
Jim Thorpe was born in 1887 near where Prague, Oklahoma is now. The 1880s was a tumultuous time for Native Americans in this country. Health and well-being weren't priorities in Indian Territory, he lost his mother early in life. Even worse, America was still hell-bent on erasing this land's native culture out of existence through the American Indian boarding school system, yet Jim rose to the occasion to conquer life's adversity.
Like many Native American youths of the time, pent up with frustration, Jim continually ran away from the area schools he was forced into attending. His last go-round was a trip to a live-in boarding house and industrial school in Pennsylvania. With nowhere else to go, he stayed.
From an early age, it was clear Jim Thorpe was a gifted athlete but it wasn't until he landed in Pennsylvania that his talent truly shined. Famed football coach and icon Glenn "Pop" Warner took him under his wing to develop and refine his abilities.
Yes... THE Pop Warner.
Jim was the type of talent that could walk out of the classroom and instantly compete with the best with no warm-up, no stretching. Just pure domination. He competed competitively with outstanding results in football, baseball, lacrosse, track, the high jump, etc... He even became a collegiate champion of competitive ballroom dancing because that was a thing in 1912, the same year he earned a trip to the Olympics.
Jim arrived in Stockholm, Sweden for the 1912 Summer Olympic Games as a track and field specialist ready to compete in the pentathlon (five events) and decathlon (ten events). This is when Jim Thorpe became a sports legend.
There's a famous photo to go with a tale of shenanigans. While Jim Thorpe wasn't famous at the time, his competition was truly worried about the newcomer that so casually and effortlessly earned a trip to the Olympic games. Race probably also had something to do it, but that's just an assumption.
Jim quickly gained attention in the Olympic media coverage for his athletic prowess. In 1912 he was as fast as today's Usain Bolt and broke records in other events like the high jump, long jump, pole vault, and hurdles.
As the Olympics go, you don't have to win all of your events in the pentathlon/decathlon, you just have to earn the most points to earn the gold medal. After dominating the pentathlon, in order to get a leg up on the man that was dominating the track and field events, someone stole Jim's running shoes during the decathlon.
Unwilling to miss his chance to show the world what he was made of, Jim pulled a random shoe out of a trash can and found another. Doing what champions do, he laced them up and went on to earn his gold medal wearing them. Seen below.
Like every great tale of man's triumph over adversity, Jim Thorpe quickly became a worldwide sports celebrity, but the notoriety didn't last long.
As 1912 spilled into 1913, a story traveled the country on the newspaper wire about how Jim Thorpe had played minor-league baseball prior to his Olympic performance. When the Olympic committee heard about it, they immediately stripped him of his two gold medals on the technicality that he had been a paid, therefore "professional" athlete.
The same papers that brought down Oklahoma's greatest athlete then went on to defend Thorpe. This was a very common practice among Olympians at the time. Most, if not all, supplemented their income by playing sports under aliases. It's crazy how different the times were back then, isn't it? Nowadays athletes are paid to train and swim in pools full of endorsement money, but this was the straw that broke the camels back in 1913.
Almost seventy years later, long after Jim Thorpe had passed away, the International Olympic Committee reviewed Jim's story and decided it was unjust. They restored him as a co-champion in 1982. Forty years after that, the IOC finally corrected history by restoring Jim Thorpe as the sole and rightful gold medal champion of the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon in 2022.
As his athlete exploits go, Jim Thorpe remains a two-time collegiate football All-American, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee as a player and former APFA (NFL) league president, a professional MLB baseball player.
He was voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century, the third greatest of the whole century just behind Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth. He's appeared on US currency and USPS stamps, inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame, and is now once again confirmed as an Olympic gold medalist.