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"Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."

— King Gustav V of Sweden, at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

"Thanks, King."

— Jim Thorpe

Trophy, 1914
Artifact Detailsview larger

This first-place trophy from a 1914 foot race at the Bronxdale (New York) Athletic Club is one of the hundreds Thorpe won.

— Gift of Sports Illustrated

Jim Thorpe
All-Around Athlete and American Indian Advocate

Jim Thorpe, one of America's finest athletes, never forgot his roots. Of Sac and Fox heritage, he was sent to the Carlisle (Pennsylvania), Indian Industrial School. There he showed signs of greatness in track and field and baseball. He also gained national fame in football. In 1908, Thorpe left to play pro baseball but soon returned to train for the Olympics.

At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Thorpe made headlines by capturing gold medals in both the decathlon and the pentathlon. Even the King of Sweden recognized his phenomenal abilities. Yet the International Olympic Committee revoked the medals for violating the Olympic ban on professional athletes—a rule that was unevenly enforced and, in Thorpe's case, smacked of racism. Thorpe became a symbol of injustice towards Native Americans.

Thorpe returned to pro baseball, playing with the New York Giants for 15 years, while simultaneously playing and coaching football. In 1920, he helped organize a forerunner of the NFL and served as its first president. Thorpe also was an actor, appearing in nearly 50 films. After retiring, he became involved in Native politics, lecturing on American Indian life.

Thorpe's medals were returned to his family in 1982.

Name: James Francis Thorpe, Wa-Tho-Huk
Born: Prague, Oklahoma, 1887–1953
  • Gold Medalist, decathlon and pentathlon, Stockholm Olympics, 1912
  • Collegiate Football All-American, 1911, 1912
  • Voted top American athlete of the first half of the 20th century, 1950
  • ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Century, 2001
  • Founder and president of American Professional Football Association, NFL forerunner

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National Museum of American History   Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service