‘Greatest athlete of all time’ posthumously recognized with U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom

Monday, May 6th, 2024 12:43pm


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Jim Thorpe and President Joe Biden
By Sam Laskaris

Jim Thorpe was posthumously awarded a prestigious honour more than a century after some of his greatest sporting achievements.

Thorpe, a Native American athlete from Oklahoma, was one of 19 individuals named as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony held May 3 at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Thorpe, who died in 1953, won a pair of gold medals in track and field at the 1912 Summer Olympics. He also played professional football, baseball and basketball.

Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, a tribe originally from the Lake Huron and Lake Michigan area that was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1870s.

Thorpe’s oldest living grandchild, Lynn, accepted the presidential medal on his behalf.

President Joe Biden, who grew up in the Pennsylvania city of Scranton, said his grandfather Ambrose Finnegan, who was an all-American football player at California’s Santa Clara University, frequently praised Thorpe’s sporting talents.

“I grew up always hearing about Jim Thorpe—I’m serious—as not just the greatest ball player. The greatest athlete of all time,” Biden said. “(My grandfather) talked about him all the time.”

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honour in the United States. It is presented to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the prosperity, values or security of the country, world peace, or other noteworthy societal, public or private endeavour.

Thorpe became the first Native American athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. He won gold medals in both the men’s pentathlon and decathlon events at those Games.

But some controversy surrounded his performances. Thorpe was later stripped of the medals when it was discovered that he had been paid for playing two seasons of semi-pro baseball before he competed at the Olympics.

As a result, Thorpe was deemed to be in violation of the Games’ rule of being an event for amateur athletes only.

It is believed that early on during the last century numerous collegiate baseball players suited up for pro teams during the summer months. Many of those athletes used aliases since they were not allowed to accept any sort of payment from pro clubs.

Thorpe wrote a letter hoping to be exonerated for playing pro baseball and then competing in the Olympics.

“I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things,” Thorpe wrote in his letter. “In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names.”

In 1983, 30 years after Thorpe’s death, officials with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), restored his Olympic medals with replicas.

That’s because the original ruling to take away his medals had come about six months after the 1912 Olympics concluded. A rule at the time stipulated if a medal was to be taken away from an athlete for whatever reason it had to be done within a 30-day period.

The IOC continued to list Thorpe as a co-champion of the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon events.

In 2022, however, the IOC had a change of heart and decided to announce Thorpe would be the sole champion in both of his Olympic events.

Biden heaped plenty of praise on Thorpe during last week’s ceremony.

“He set world records in the decathlon,” Biden said of Thorpe. “He was a professional football player, a professional baseball player, a professional basketball player. Jim Thorpe showcased unparalleled athleticism and he transcended racial barriers and the power of perseverance, sheer will and determination.”

Besides Thorpe, others who were recognized with a Presidential Medal of Freedom last week were former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, former Secretary of State John Kerry, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Nancy Pelosi, a long-time California politician and former House speaker.