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Legendary athlete Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox/Potawatomi) is among the 19 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients honored today at the White House. Thorpe’s granddaughter will receive the honor posthumously for her grandfather, who passed away in 1953.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.

Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox/Potawatomi) was bestowed two Olympic gold medals by King Gustav of Sweden at the conclusion of the 1912 Olympic Games after winning the decathlon and pentathlon in Stockholm.

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To many Native Americans and non-Native people alike, Thorpe is an iconic hero, so much so that when King Gustav awarded him two Olympic gold medals the king said to him, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”

Thorpe won his two gold medals against incredibly difficult odds.

He was orphaned as a child and placed in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an Indian boarding school, which he attended from 1904 to 1913. He represented the United States at the Olympic games 12 years before American Indians gained U.S. citizenship. On the transatlantic trip to Stockholm, Thorpe and a Jewish teammate were forced to travel in the bottom of the ship, while the white American Olympic athletes received first-class accommodations.

Even in Stockholm, Thorpe had to contend with obstacles. On the morning of his competitions, his shoes were stolen shortly before his first event. Wearing shoes found in a trash can (one too big, the other too smallThorpe won the gold in the decathlon; with a 25-yard lead.

Unfortunately, as most Native Americans know, Thorpe’s story of Olympic excellence did not end there. One year after winning gold, the medals were stripped from him by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after it was discovered Thorpe had been compensatedpayment that amounted to the cost of his room and board—for playing minor league baseball prior to participating in the 1912 games.

The IOC erased Thorpe’s records from the Olympic record books. 

Attempts to have the medals returned were not rewarded until 1982, almost 30 years after Thorpe’s 1953 death, when replicas were delivered to his family. Even though the gold medals were awarded, the IOC did not restore Thorpe’s records in the Olympic history books. 

That changed almost two years ago, in July 2022, which coincidentally marked the 110th anniversary of Thorpe’s decathlon win. The IOC announced that Thorpe’s records would be reinstated, and he was formally acknowledged as the sole gold medalist in pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm games. 

​​Thorpe’s reinstatement came in partby the engagement of the nonprofit Bright Path Strong organization, supported by IOC Member Anita DeFrantz.

In addition to his Olympian fame, Thorpe was a dominant college athlete and became a Hall-of-Fame professional football player. He also played professional baseball and basketball for good measure.

In addition to Thorpe, Biden will bestow Presidential Medal of Freedom to the following individuals:

The awards will be presented at the White House on May 3, 2024. The following individuals will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

Michael R. Bloomberg

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and three-term mayor. He revolutionized the financial information industry and transformed New York City’s education, environment, public health, and the arts.

Gregory J. Boyle

Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit Catholic priest who is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang-intervention and rehabilitation program. He has helped thousands of Angelenos turn their lives around.

James E. Clyburn

Representative Jim Clyburn is the former Assistant Democratic Leader and Majority Whip in the United States House of Representatives. Through three decades in the House, Representative Clyburn has transformed the lives of millions of Americans and created a freer country.

Elizabeth Dole

Senator Elizabeth Dole has served her country as a trailblazing United States Senator, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Labor, and President of the American Red Cross. She leads by example through her Foundation’s support for military caregivers and their families.

Phil Donahue

Phil Donahue is a journalist and television pioneer who pioneered the daytime issue-oriented television talk show. Donahue was the first daytime talk show to feature audience participation and one of the most influential television programs of its time.

Medgar Wiley Evers (posthumous)

Medgar Evers (d. 1963) fought for his country in World War II and returned home to lead the fight against segregation in Mississippi. After he was murdered at his home at age 37, his wife Myrlie continued the fight to seek justice and equality in his name.

Al Gore

Al Gore is a former Vice President, United States Senator, and member of the House of Representatives. After winning the popular vote, he accepted the outcome of a disputed presidential election for the sake of our unity. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for his bold action on climate change.

Clarence B. Jones

Clarence B. Jones is a renowned civil rights activist and lawyer who helped draft Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream speech. Jones was instrumental in preserving Dr. King’s legacy and remains an outspoken force against hate.

John Forbes Kerry

Secretary John Kerry is a former Secretary of State, United States Senator, and the first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. His bravery in combat during the Vietnam War earned him the Silver Star and Bronze Star, and history will remember his public service career that has spanned seven decades.

Frank R. Lautenberg (posthumous)

Senator Frank Lautenberg (d. 2013) was a five-term United States Senator and New Jersey’s longest-serving Senator. He is remembered for his critical work on environmental protection and consumer safety across a number of fields.

Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky

Katie Ledecky is the most decorated female swimmer in history. An athletic prodigy, she has won seven Olympic gold medals and twenty-one world championship gold medals so far. She will continue to compete for the Nation whowatches her in awe.

Opal Lee

Opal Lee is an educator and activist known for her efforts to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday. More than 150 years after that day in Texas, she joined President Biden to officially make Juneteenth a national holiday in 2021.

Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa is the first Hispanic woman in space and the second female Director of NASA’s renowned Johnson Space Center. Dr. Ochoa has flown in space four times, logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit, and continues to inspire young generations of scientists.

Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi served as the 52nd Speaker of the House and has represented San Francisco in Congress for more than 36 years. A staunch defender of democracy, she has shaped legislative agendas and Democratic priorities for decades.

Jane Rigby

Jane Rigby, an astronomer who grew up in Delaware, is the chief scientist of the world’s most powerful telescope. A prolific researcher, Dr. Rigby embodies the American spirit of adventure and wonder.

Teresa Romero

Teresa Romero is the president of the United Farm Workers and the first Latina to become president of a national union in the United States. She has secured key victories to improve the lives of the workers who feed and fuel our Nation.

Judy Shepard

Judy Shepard is the co-founder of the Matthew Shephard Foundation, an organization created in honor of her son, who was murdered in one of the Nation’s most notorious anti-gay hate crimes. Her work has driven tremendous progress in our fight to give hate no safe harbor.

Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh is an actress known for her groundbreaking work in a number of blockbusters over four decades. Recently, she became the first Asian to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Yeoh continues to shatter stereotypes and enrich American culture.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].