We all have times when the world and circumstances push us to the very edge of sanity. We are not respected, trusted, believed, cared for, or loved, and we find ourselves on the brink of a life altering decision. Do we fight back…do we give in and quit, or do we roll with the punches, gather ourselves and move on??? It’s tough – very very tough – and it’s how we handle these challenges and the decisions we make, that will set the path of our lives.
Unfortunately, many shattered lives occur when we choose to give into these circumstances and quit. This is exactly what happened to a very gifted man who, in his day, was the greatest athlete of all time, and his achievements have never been matched, to this very day.
James Francis Thorpe, who’s Indian name was Wa-Tho-Huk, translated as "Bright Path"; was an American athlete and Olympic gold medalist. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe was the first Native American to win a gold medal for the United States in the Olympics. Considered one of the most versatile athletes of modern sports, he won two Olympic gold medals in the 1912 Summer Olympics (one in classic pentathlon and the other in decathlon). He also played American football (collegiate and professional), professional baseball, and basketball.
Largely due to racism and prejudice, Jim Thorpe lost his Olympic titles after it was found he had been paid for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics, thus violating the contemporary amateurism rules. At this time, Native American’s were still not considered US Citizens and were often treated as second class citizens. So, when the Olympic Committee stripped Thorpe of his medals, violating their own rules to do so, it was largely believed it was a move made because he was Native American. In 1983, 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored his Olympic medals with replicas, after ruling that the decision to strip him of his medals fell outside of their own rules, requiring 30 days’ notice of a violation. However, Thorpe was not truly fully exonerated as the official IOC records still listed Thorpe as co-champion in decathlon and pentathlon, and did not return the original gold medals.
Thorpe went on to have a great career in professional sports. He excelled at every sport and was paid handsomely. However, the trauma of being publicly humiliated over the stripping of his titles and medals always haunted him and he turned to alcohol to kill his pain. Even so, he was a huge public figure and people came from all over to share in his achievements. These people would follow him, praise him, but would always ask for handouts and financial assistance. It was once estimated that he was giving away over 90% of his earnings to friends and other people in need, and spending the remaining 5% on alcohol and 5% on family.
As the years passed and his athletic ability became to diminish with his age, his alcoholism was growing but his income was going in the opposite direction. From 1920 to 1921, Thorpe was nominally the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which became the NFL in 1922. He played professional sports until age 41, the end of his sports career coinciding with the start of the Great Depression. He struggled to earn a living after that, working several odd jobs. He suffered from alcoholism, and lived his last years in failing health and poverty. He was married three times and had eight children, before suffering from heart failure and dying in 1953.
Thorpe has received numerous accolades for his athletic accomplishments. The Associated Press ranked him as the "greatest athlete" from the first 50 years of the 20th century, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted him as part of its inaugural class in 1963. The town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania was named in his honor. Thorpe appeared in several films and was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1951 film about his life; Jim Thorpe – All-American.
Jim Thorpe was the greatest athlete of all time. He put everything into his athletics and nothing into his future life after sports. When wrongly stripped of his medals, he turned to the bottle, a decision that would eventually lead to an early death. If ever there was a gifted self-made man, Jim Thorpe had all the makings of him, but unfortunately chose to be bitter about his situation and eventually give up.
He could have made several other decisions. The decision to fight, because the Olympic committee broke their own rules. He could have decided to move on, save a majority of the money he earned and better educate himself or start a career after sports. Instead, he chose the path he took, which led to no career, eventually no money, and several failed marriages and relationships.
We all face these kinds of challenges, and it’s these decisions that will set the path for the remainder of our lives. Unfortunately for this gifted man, his decision likely began the short path to the end of his life.
In a bit of irony, just this past week, Thorpe’s medals were truly and fully reinstated. The nonprofit Bright Path Strong (Thorpe’s Indigenous name is Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path”) started a petition, in 2020, advocating for his reinstatement. As Tulsa World’s Eric Bailey reports, the petition got over 75,000 signatures, as well as the support of the National Congress of American Indians and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“We welcome the fact that, thanks to the great engagement of Bright Path Strong, a solution could be found,” says IOC president Thomas Bach 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.”
Bright Path Strong and the IOC consulted the family of Swedish athlete Hugo Wieslander, who received the decathlon gold medal that had once belonged to Thorpe. Per the statement, Wieslander’s family confirmed that he “had always been of the opinion that Jim Thorpe was the sole legitimate Olympic gold medalist.” Wieslander and Ferdinand Bie (the Norwegian athlete who had received Thorpe’s gold medal in the pentathlon) are now listed as silver medal winners in their respective events, per the Associated Press.
Thorpe’s supporters, including other Native American athletes, say they are encouraged by last week’s decision. “I was just so, so touched and so thrilled,” Billy Mills, who is an Olympic gold medalist and a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation, tells Tulsa World. “I had happy tears. I just took the moment to enjoy the cry.”
“We are so grateful this nearly 110-year-old injustice has finally been corrected, and there is no confusion about the most remarkable athlete in history,” Nedra Darling, Bright Path Strong’s co-founder, told the Associated Press.