If you watched the U.S. broadcast of the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, you may have heard Matt Lauer and Bob Costas mention Jim Thorpe during Sweden’s entrance. Thorpe, arguably the best all-around athlete in U.S. history, won Olympic gold in both the pentathlon and the decathlon in the Stockholm 1912 games. But his victory was marred by a controversial International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruling that stripped him of his medals six months later.
In Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe (Bison Books, 2012), the first comprehensive biography of Thorpe, biographer Kate Buford explores how Thorpe’s Native American heritage shaped his life, but also the impact Thorpe himself had upon American sports. Ultimately, he was the country’s first celebrity athlete, excelling at both baseball and football. His life was memorialized in a 1951 film and, in 1963, Thorpe was among the charter class inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Despite his other successes, the revocation of Jim Thorpe’s medals remains a source of contention for his admirers, Buford among them.In 1982, the IOC approved the reinstatement of Thorpe’s medals and during London 2012, the Hammersmith tube station has been temporarily renamed in Thorpe’s honor. But, despite public outcry, the IOC still refuses to enter Thorpe’s scores into the official record of Olympic events.
As Buford writes: “A gentle person, intelligent and funny, with many flaws, Jim Thorpe was not a complicated man. But what happened to him was.”