The Running High

The Running High: A History of Controversy and Corruption. Part 1


Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympic Games, held in Stockholm, Sweden.

The past few weeks have been filled with tales of controversy stemming from incidents, disqualifications, and tirades from our own Indoor Track and Field Championships and even from the recently concluded IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships, held in Sopot, Poland.

In the wake of such dissension, I’ve decided to take a look back at the history of controversy and corruption in our sport.

Since the beginning of the Olympic movement, athletics has been struck with controversy, and corruption.  The sport is filled with soap opera like tales of jealousy and greed.  One of the early victims of the bureaucratic juggernaut called the IOC was Jim Thorpe, often considered the best athlete of the 20th century.

An Unmatched Athlete  

Jim Thorpe was born on Native American Territory, just outside a little town called Prague, Oklahoma.  He was born into a mixed-race family, with an Irish Father and Native American Mother.

Thorpe’s mother and brother both died when he was young, and at the age of 16 Jim decided to attend the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, in Carlisle, PA.¬† It was there that his athletic talent shone.

Jim excelled at a variety of sports, and was essentially a one-man-team for the Carlisle School’s track team.¬† When 1912 rolled around, he had never competed in the Javelin or the Pole Vault before, but still managed to qualify for the 1912 Olympic team in the Pentathlon (no longer an Olympic event) and the Decathlon.

1912_Summer_Olympics_posterTo say that Jim Thorpe dominated the games would be a gross understatement.¬† He won 8 of the 15 events he competed in and set a decathlon mark (8,412.95) that wouldn’t be bested for the next four Olympic Games.¬† He took home the gold in both his events, and became an American celebrity in the process.

Now, some of you may be familiar with the governing body of yore, the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union).  The AAU was the governing body of track and field at the time.  The AAU selected athletes for Olympic teams before there was a USOC and USATF.  Those bodies were not formed in there current state until the Amateur Sports Act of 1978.

The AAU, IOC, and an Amateurism Controversy

The AAU took amateurism very seriously.  During that time period, a professional athlete (one who is paid to play) could not participate in amateur competitions, such as the Olympics.  So when they found out that Thorpe had played a year of minor league professional baseball, they took action.

It was six months after Thorpe’s 1912 performance when the Worcester Telegram that first released the news that Thorpe, who was in college at the time, had spent summer playing professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League.¬† Although he was being paid very little ( sometimes only $2 per game), the fact that he was being paid made him a professional.

The AAU acted on this immediately.  Since this baseball stint had come before the 1912 games, the AAU retroactively stripped Thorpe of his amateur status, meaning that when he competed in 1912, he was a professional.  The AAU also asked the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to do the same.

The IOC unanimously voted to strip Thorpe of all medals, titles, and awards.

There are some issues with this, because in the process, the IOC broke its own rules.

First, the IOC violated their own statutes by stripping Thorpe of his titles.  As per IOC-7their own rules, an objection needed to be made within 30 days of the competition.  The initial reports came out well after the fact.

Second, Thorpe pleaded ignorance to the rules.¬† He was only doing what other college kids were doing at the time.¬† Many college athletes were paid to play over the summers, often using alias’ to protect their amateur status while they were in school.¬† Thorpe never used an alias.

While the public didn’t care too much about Thorpe’s professional stint in college, the AAU did.¬† As they would prove time and time again over the course of the next half century, the AAU took amateurism very seriously.

Efforts to get Thrope reinstated as Olympic Champion were rebuffed by the AAU and IOC.¬† He never competed again in Track and Field, and instead had professional career’s both in Football and Baseball.¬† All the attempts to get him reinstated during his lifetime were turned down, and he passed in 1952 with no money, and no Olympic medals.


The first serious attempt to get Thorpe reinstated came in 1943, when the Oklahoma legislation pleaded with the AAU and IOC to get Thorpe his medals back.¬† This was denied, and AAU Official Avery Brundage (a competitor of Thorpe’s during the 1912 games) stated that “Ignorance is no excuse”.¬† Brundage would prove to be a big obstacle during the fight to win Thorpe’s reinstatement.

Again in 1952, an Ohio congressman by the name of Frank Bow pleaded with Brundage to restore Thorpe’s Olympic titles, and again it failed.

In 1975, the USOC appealed directly to the IOC, and again was denied.

It took until 1982, 70 years after the games, (and years after the death of Avery Brundage) that USOC president William E. Simon met with the IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, that action was finally taken.¬† In October of that year, the IOC approved Jim Thorpe’s reinstatement.

Replica medals were awarded to his daughter, and he was declared co-champion with the athlete who actually finished second to Thorpe at the games (Hugo Wieslander).  Even though the replica medals were awarded, the official Olympic report was not modified. Thorpe officially has no Olympic record, and on the books, Wieslander is still listed as the Decathlon champion.

Even on the IOC website, Thorpe is still listed as Co-Champion alongside Wieslander, even though he won by over 700 points.

A hollow victory indeed.

Does this remind you of any of the recent controversies? How do you think the IOC and AAU should have responded to the Thorpe allegations?

– Nick

(Nick Hilton is a manager at Run Flagstaff in Flagstaff, Arizona where he trains as a professional distance runner.  He is a 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and a member of Team Run Flagstaff Pro.  He competes in distances ranging from the mile to the marathon.  Follow him on Twitter: @Nackhilton and on his personal blog: The Moderately Talented Distance Runner)

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