When I received the news about Jim Thorpe from Nedra Darling, co-founder of Bright Path Strong, I got quiet. Jim Thorpe is finally recognized as the sole winner of the Gold Medal in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics. I broke down crying tears of joy.
As a young boy living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I grew up knowing the name Jim Thorpe. He was recognized as the greatest athlete in the world and he was Native American, like me. Jim Thorpe became more than an Olympic hero to me; He was an Olympic god.
When Jim Thorpe won his Gold medals in 1912, he was not considered a U.S citizen. Indigenous people could not become citizens until 1924. When he was competing, amateur athletes were not allowed to work. Imagine how many barriers this created for a young Native American man in 1912, trying to support himself! He played baseball one summer, when school was out, and earned $2 for a game. This would later be the reason the US Olympic Committee decided to strip Jim Thorpe of his Olympic Gold medals. Indian Country has fought for years to get them back. Eventually, the International Olympic Committee reinstated them, but as a co-Gold medal winner. Even his competitors, the men who won second place, acknowledged that Jim Thorpe was the winner.
At the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, watching the 10,000-meter race, the announcers said that America has never won that event. In 1912 Lewis Tewanima, Hopi, won Silver in the 10K race and I, Oglala Lakota, won the Gold medal in 1964 in it. Americans – Native Americans – had won that event. Systemic racism did not allow the recognition of Jim Thorpe’s medals, and it prevented the announcers from recognizing Lewis’ and mine.
The Lakota have a saying: “Mitakuye Oyasin.” We are all related. Sport, and Jim Thorpe, taught me the beauty of global diversity, unity, and dignity. They taught me that with community overcoming barriers is possible.
-Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota)
Olympic Gold Medalist
Running Strong for American Indian Youth