Smithsonian Magazine has a good argument on why Jim Thorpe should be considered amongst the greatest Olympians even though his records and medals are not officially acknowledged by the IOC.
A week later the three-day decathlon competition began in a pouring rain. Thorpe opened the event by splashing down the track in the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds-a time not equaled at the Olympics until 1948.
On the second day, Thorpe’s shoes were missing. Warner hastily put together a mismatched pair in time for the high jump, which Thorpe won. Later that afternoon came one of his favorite events, the 110-meter hurdles. Thorpe blistered the track in 15.6 seconds, again quicker than Bob Mathias would run it in ‘48.
On the final day of competition, Thorpe placed third and fourth in the events in which he was most inexperienced, the pole vault and javelin. Then came the very last event, the 1,500-meter run. The metric mile was a leg-burning monster that came after nine other events over two days. And he was still in mismatched shoes.
Thorpe left cinders in the faces of his competitors. He ran it in 4 minutes 40.1 seconds. Faster than anyone in 1948. Faster than anyone in 1952. Faster than anyone in 1960 — when he would have beaten Rafer Johnson by nine seconds. No Olympic decathlete, in fact, could beat Thorpe’s time until 1972. As Neely Tucker of the Washington Post pointed out, even today’s reigning gold medalist in the decathlon, Bryan Clay, would beat Thorpe by only a second.
Update: I misstated what the Smithsonian article actually said about Thorpe’s official status according to the IOC. Here’s what the article says:
It’s commonly believed that Thorpe at last received Olympic justice in October of 1982 when the IOC bowed to years of public pressure and delivered two replica medals to his family, announcing, “The name of James Thorpe will be added to the list of athletes who were crowned Olympic champions at the 1912 Games.” What’s less commonly known is that the IOC appended this small, mean sentence: “However, the official report for these Games will not be modified.”
In other words, the IOC refused even to acknowledge Thorpe’s results in the 15 events he competed in. To this day the Olympic record does not mention them. The IOC also refused to demote Wieslander and the other runners-up from their elevated medal status. Wieslander’s results stand as the official winning tally. Thorpe was merely a co-champion, with no numerical evidence of his overwhelming superiority. This is no small thing. It made Thorpe an asterisk, not a champion. It was lip service, not restitution.
Thorpe’s family got his medals and is listed on the Olypmic web site. But as the article says, it does nothing to recognize just how dominant Thorpe was in the decathalon and pentathalon. In the decathalon, Thorpe led from the second event on and beat his nearest competitor Hugo Wieslander by almost 700 points. (For his part, Wieslander refused to accept the gold medal retroactively awarded to him because of Thorpe’s disqualification.) His victory in the pentathlon was even more lopsided…in an event where fewer points are better, the second-place competitor earned three times as many points as Thorpe. (thx, gary)