Everybody knows that, whatever the USADA will try to say, Lance Armstrong will remain the winner of seven Tours de France. Only thing, he might have to wait a long while before the hypocrisy surrounding doping will finally disappear.
In 1912, strict rules regarding amateurism were in effect for athletes participating in the Olympics. Athletes who received money prizes for competitions, were sports teachers or had competed previously against professionals, were not considered amateurs and were barred from competition.
In late January 1913, the Worcester Telegram published a story announcing that Thorpe had played professional baseball, and other U.S. newspapers followed up the story. Thorpe had indeed played professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League for Rocky Mount, North Carolina, in 1909 and 1910, receiving meager pay; reportedly as little as US $2 ($50 today) per game and as much as $35 ($873 today) per week. College players, in fact, regularly spent summers playing professionally but most used aliases, unlike Thorpe.
Although the public didn’t seem to care much about Thorpe’s past, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and especially its secretary James Edward Sullivan, took the case very seriously. Thorpe wrote a letter to Sullivan, in which he admitted playing professional baseball:…”I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names….”
His letter didn’t help. The AAU decided to withdraw Thorpe’s amateur status retroactively and asked the International Olympic Commission (IOC) to do the same. Later that year, the IOC unanimously decided to strip Thorpe of his Olympic titles, medals and awards and declare him a professional.
Although Thorpe had played for money, the AAU and IOC did not follow the rules for disqualification. The rulebook for the 1912 Olympics stated that protests had to be made “within” 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the games. The first newspaper reports did not appear until January 1913, about six months after the Stockholm Games had concluded. There is also some evidence that Thorpe’s amateur status had been questioned long before the Olympics, but the AAU had ignored the issue until being confronted with it in 1913.
And what happened then seventy years later (and 30 years after Thorpe’s death in 1953)?
Over the years, supporters of Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic titles reinstated. US Olympic officials, including former teammate and later president of the IOC Avery Brundage, rebuffed several attempts, with Brundage once saying, “Ignorance is no excuse.” Most persistent were the author Robert Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon. They succeeded in having the AAU and United States Olympic Committee overturn its decision and restore Thorpe’s amateur status prior to 1913.
In 1982, Wheeler and Ridlon established the Jim Thorpe Foundation and gained support from the U.S. Congress. Armed with this support and evidence from 1912 proving that Thorpe’s disqualification had occurred after the 30-day time period allowed by Olympics rules, they succeeded in making the case to the IOC. In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement. In an unusual ruling, they declared that Thorpe was co-champion with Bie and Wieslander, although both of these athletes had always said they considered Thorpe to be the only champion. In a ceremony on January 18, 1983, the IOC presented two of Thorpe’s children, Gale and Bill, with commemorative medals. Thorpe’s original medals had been held in museums, but they had been stolen and have never been recovered.
As reported by the New York Times in 1975, the passing of Brundage in the same year didn’t hurt Thorpe’s case. Likewise, on Oct 22, 1974 the word “AMATEUR” in the meanwhile had finally been “scrubbed from the Olympic lexicon as the 75th session of the International Olympic Committee opens [...] with the avowed intention of eradicating hypocrisy” (my emphasis).