The most enduring images of the Olympic games are usually of African-Americans, and more recently African-Canadians, setting records in track and field, Kenyans leaving other competitors in the dust in distance running, pixieish young girls performing seemingly impossible tumbles and twists in front of adoring throngs. The names, some of them, are legendary. Leonard, Clay, Lewis, Joyner, Comaneci, Retton. This year in Atlanta, who knows. Bailey, Nemov, Johnson? At worst Tonya in Oslo, the Eagle in Calgary or Ben in Seoul.
Mention the Games to aboriginals though and their thoughts might turn to names like Morris, Mills, Thorpe, Renick. Natives who achieved the Olympic ideals of higher, faster, stronger.
There are also the lesser known, Brown, Deer, Longboat, Keeper, Tewanima, DeCouteau, Mt. Pleasant. Olympians who provide inspiration for today’s Native athletes.
Without argument the greatest of these Native Olympians was Jim Thorpe, a Sauk/Fox Potawatomi from Oklahoma, who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe’s world record of 8,412 points in the decathlon stood for 16 years and would have won him a silver medal in 1948. He placed fourth and seventh in the high and broad jump events. Also competing in the pentathlon that summer was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army who went on to become a World War II General. George Patton placed fifth overall. After winning the decathlon Thorpe, a descendant of the famous Chief Black Hawk, was presented to King Gustav who complimented him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” He is reported to have answered the monarch, “Thanks, King.” Thorpe started his athletic career while on cleanup detail in school. Dressed in overalls, he cleared the high bar with room to spare before a very surprised group of track and field athletes.
According to the Illustrated History of the Olympics, Thorpe wasn’t merely ahead of his time physically. He was also a pre-visualization pioneer. On the way to Stockholm by sea, as the rest of the U.S. team trained on the ship’s deck, Thorpe reclined on a deck chair. A reporter asked him what he was doing. Thorpe replied, “I’m practicing the broad jump. I’ve just jumped 23 feet, 8 inches,” and closed his eyes again.
Thorpe’s medals were stripped from him and his name deleted from the Olympic record book six months later when a newspaper story revealed that he had received two dollars a day while playing minor league baseball. In a letter to the Amateur Athletic Union, Thorpe wrote, “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.” An IOC member who had lost to Thorpe in the same pentathlon opposed Thorpe’s reinstatement, giving the reason: “Ignorance is no excuse.” Ignored were Olympic bylaws of the time which stated: “Objections to the qualifications of a competitor must be received by the Swedish Olympic Committee before the lapse of 30 days.”
Thorpe was voted the “greatest American athlete and greatest football player of the first half of the 20th century” in 1950 by the Associated Press. Babe Ruth was runner-up. Thorpe also played major league baseball with the New York Giants and football with the Canton Bulldogs. Thorpe also helped found the American Professional Football Association which is now the National Football League. In the 1950’s a movie about Thorpe’s life premiered in his home town starring Burt Lancaster. He was a politician in Native affairs and acted in several B-movies.
Replicas of his medals were returned to his family in 1983, 30 years after his death at the age of 64. Even then the International Olympic Committee would only recognize James Francis Thorpe as “co-winner.” His daughter Grace is now lobbying to have him named as the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Native Canadian Sandy McCarthy of the Calgary Flames is set to play Thorpe in a film now in production.
In what is still called the greatest upset in Olympic history, Billy Mills of the Oglala Nation set a world record of 28 minutes 24.4 seconds in the 10,000-metre race and won a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The first and only American to ever win the event.
Mills was stopped during his victory lap by a Japanese Olympic official and asked, “Who are you?” Not very surprising when you consider he had been given a one in 1,000 chance of winning in both the events he competed in. He had finished a distant second in the U.S. Olympic trials to another athlete, Gerry Lindgren, America’s hope to win a medal against a strong international field.
“My strategy was simply to go out with the top four runners and stay in contact and hope for the best. But when we reached the halfway mark, I was within one second of my fastest 5,000 metres and there was still 5,000 metres to go. I said to myself, I’m going to have to quit.”
Instead of slowing down Mills started sprinting and took the lead. As they began the final lap, the leaders had to make their way past the “lapped” runners. In the confusion, the Australian favored to win, Ron Clarke, bumped into Mills while passing him. Mills stumbled. A Tunisian runner passed Mills leaving him in third place. “Something inside me was saying,” remembers Mills, “there’s still a chance, there’s still a chance. So I started driving. They were 15 yards in front of me, but it seemed . like 50 yards. Then I kept telling myself, ‘I can win… I can win… I can win…’ and the next thing I remember I broke the tape.”
Mills thought he had miscounted the laps when the official asked who he was. Then the official smiled and said, “You finished… you finished…”
Billy Mills was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He won a scholarship to the University of Kansas. After failing to win a spot on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team he trained intensely, running 100 miles a week for the next four years. Ultimately he competed in the marathon, as well as the 10,000, in Tokyo. He was a captain in the U.S. Marines and was honorably discharged in 1965. He held numerous world, American and European records. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1976 and won the Jackie Robinson Humanitarian Award in 1995. He is now a successful businessman, author and speaker. His story was dramatized in the 1983 major motion picture, Running Brave, starring Robbie Benson.
Alwyn Morris of Kahnawake won gold and bronze medals in canoeing at the LA Olympics in 1984. He held a feather aloft on the winner’s podium in honour of his late grandfather. The Olympic committee was not amused. The image of Morris with an upheld feather appeared in anti-drug and alcohol posters in Native communities across Canada.
Louis Tewanima, a Hopi from Arizona, was also in Stockholm in 1912 and won a silver medal in the 10,000-metre marathon. He also competed at the 1908 games in London, placing ninth. A year later he set a world record for the 10-mile run in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Also competing in Stockholm in 1912 was Andrew Sockalexis, a Penobscot from Old Town, Maine. He came in fifth in the marathon. Sockalexis’ cousin Louis Francis Sockalexis was also a well-known sportsman. He played for the Cleveland Naps. It was because of him that the Naps changed their name to the Indians and was the inspiration of the team mascot Chief Wahoo. He would be greeted with “war whoops” when he appeared in stadiums and his team called Indians whenever he played.
Around the same time, Chippewa from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan Clarence “Taffy” Abel, was the team captain of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. He was also the colour bearer and took the Olympic oath for all the U.S. players. He went on to play professional hockey with the New York Rangers in 1926 through 1929, the Chicago Black Hawks from 1929 to 1934, winning the Stanley Cup in ’34. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973.
Albert Smoke of the Ojibway Nation in Curve Lake, Ontario ran in the marathon in Antwerp in 1920. A bicyclist ran into him and he could not complete the race.
A Cree also competed in Stockholm in 1912. Joseph Keeper from Norway House, Manitoba came in fourth in the 10,000-metre race. Keeper received a citation after serving Canada in World War I.
Alex DeCouteau of Saskatchewan placed 18th in the 5,000-metre race. DeCouteau was from the Red Pheasant Reserve. In total five Natives took part in the 1912 Stockholm games and won three medals.
Ellison Myers “Tarzan” Brown, a Narragansett from Rhode Island, ran the marathon at the Berlin games in 1936 but was disqualified after a spectator helped him up when he stopped to rest. “Tarzan” won the Boston Marathon twice in 1936 and 1939. After his victory in one of the marathons he was quoted as saying, “I guess after this you won’t be saying the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Thomas Longboat, an Onondaga from Six Nations, ran in the 1908 Olympic marathon but was unable to finish because of heat exhaustion. A year before on April 19 he won the Boston Marathon with a record time of two hours, 24 minutes and 24 seconds. He had captured the lead early in the race and had run past a train which cut off the other
racers. “I heard it behind me and had to chuckle when I thought of the others getting shut off,” said Longboat.
Another Native participated in the 1908 games with Longboat. Frank Mt. Pleasant of Tuscarora, New York placed sixth in the long jump and the triple jump. Mt. Pleasant was the first Native to earn a degree from Dickinson College.
Norman “Trump” General defeated Tom Longboat in a race between Caledonia to Obswegan, Maine. General finished 17th in Antwerp, Belgium. He was from Six Nations.
Oneida William Charles competed in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1928 Amsterdam games.
Another Onondaga, RusselI George, of New York was reportedly on the track team in Berlin in 1936.
Jessie Renick, a Choctaw, was the captain of the U.S. basketball gold winning team in the 1948 games in London.
Ojibway ski-jumper, Steve Collins, finished ninth at Lake Placid in 1980. Sharon Firth of Aklavik, NWT competed in Nordic Skiing in 1972, 1976,1980 and 1984. Her twin sister Shirley is also an Olympian.
Angela Chambers of Manitoba won a bronze medal in 1992. She won gold at the British Columbia Commonwealth games in 1994.