The Good Guy Finally Won

When I was a young girl one of our local television stations ran old movies each afternoon. I often came home from school and settled down on the family couch to watch the black and white films from my mother’s teen years. One of my all time favorites was a movie about Jim Thorpe starring Burt Lancaster. I enjoyed the flick so much that I have viewed it many times over the years and I never grow weary of it even though it may not have been totally accurate.

Jim Thorpe was a Native American born in Oklahoma and sent to the Carlisle School for Native American children in Pennsylvania where he played on both the football and baseball team. He was such a talented athlete that he was touted as a future All-American. During the summer breaks he played baseball for a minor league team that paid him thirty dollars a month. 

Eventually Thorpe participated in the Summer Olympics of 1912 that were held in Sweden. He won gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon. Sadly, a newspaper broke a story a year after his victory exposing his work on the baseball team. The Olympic committee charged Thorpe with breaking the rules and rescinded his medals. For the rest of his life Thorpe and his family would fight this decision but nothing came of their efforts. Jim Thorpe died in poverty in his sixties. 

I was fascinated with Jim Thorpe’s story. I cried watching the movie and felt that it had been unfair to take his medals. My beliefs further materialized when I later saw Olympic athletes earning lucrative contracts as spokespersons of various products. Somehow it seemed wrong that this humble man’s reputation had been so battered. Further reading showed that many people knew about his work long before he went to the Olympics and only expressed their “horror” after the story hit the newspapers. Additionally the actual rule about taking away medals indicated that any complaints had to be submitted within three months of the end of the Olympics. The investigation did not begin until well over a year after Thorpe had won. 

I remember my grandfather talking about how mistreated Native Americans had been in Oklahoma. He had worked in the area before it was even a state and had witnessed what amounted to brazen theft of land for the cost of a car battery. It made him angry to see other men taking advantage of the native people who had been humiliated over and over again. I suppose that I thought of these things with regard to Jim Thorpe and wondered if the Olympic Committee would have been as quick to take his medals if he had been a white man. I wondered why the men who coached and trained him failed to mention that he might not be eligible for the Olympic competitions because of his paid work that would have amounted to a grand total of one hundred eighty dollars. 

Happily the Jim Thorpe story was not over. After all these years the Olympic Committee agreed with me and reinstated all of his medals. While it is always great to make a wrong right, I find myself wondering if Jim Thorpe’s life might have turned out differently if he had never lost his medals and his adulation in the first place. He himself was rather resigned to his fate, often commenting that it was just one more insult to a Red man in a long line of historical injustice. 

There is a great deal of concern these days about making children feel guilty about the treatment of different groups in the story of our country. Somehow there are adults who do not seem to understand that children will learn about such things one way or another. They might hear their grandfather telling stories about his work near Native American reservations or they might watch an old movie one afternoon. What they see and hear will pique their interest, encourage them to ask questions and do some reading to find out more information. It may become an obsession them for much of their lives as the Jim Thorpe story did for me. Ironically, this was not a horrible thing, but an awakening that I believe made me a better person. 

There have always been bad things done by bad people and bad things done by good people. Talking about them is healthy and leads to critical thinking about how we should behave. Sometimes it even leads to correcting a terrible mistake. I can’t think of anything wrong with that. 

Jim Thorpe was always my hero. Now the tarnish from his name has been removed. I have a bit more spring in my step and the hint of a smile on my face knowing that I was right all along. His is a difficult story but I think I learned a great deal about people and even myself from following the saga for all these years. It’s nice to watch a good guy finally win in the end. 


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