By Levi Rickert
A day after the International Olympic Committee announced it had restored two gold medals solely to Jim Thorpe’s name, Indigenous News Online spoke with another legendary Native American athlete who won gold on the Olympic stage: long-distance runner Billy Mills.
Mills, 84, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux tribe, grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He attended Haskell Indian Nations University and the University of Kansas. Mills attended KU on an athletic scholarship and was a three-time NCAA All-American cross-country runner.
At the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Mills won Olympic gold in the 10,000 meters. His victory is considered one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. He remains the only American to have won the event.
In a phone call Saturday, Mills spoke to Native News Online from his home in Sacramento, Calif. He reflects on the news of Thorpe’s reinstatement as the only gold medalist in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your reaction to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to restore Jim Thorpe’s gold medals solely to his name?
It was phenomenal! I just burst into tears because I felt so overjoyed. When they announced he was the only recipient, I started crying and in my body I felt for the first time that I was an Olympian.
Talk about Jim Thorpe being stripped of his gold medals.
I may be wrong, I’ve always had the impression from the readings I’ve done that when the medals were taken from Jim Thorpe by the International Olympic Committee, the decision was left to the Committee United States Olympic and USOC stripped him. I felt it was tied to privilege and systemic racism.
When I came back after winning in Tokyo, I never had to deal with the scorn Jim Thorpe received, (even though he was) one of the most popular Olympians of all time.
You have to remember that when Jim Thorpe won the gold medals in 1912, Native Americans weren’t even citizens. As you know, that didn’t happen until 1924. So when he won it, the Americans wanted to own it, yet there was contempt for it. There are those who have reached out to him while rejecting him.
Has Jim Thorpe always been a hero for you?
Jim Thorpe was beyond a hero to me. It goes back to the Pine Ridge School. We were known as the Thorpes. When I was a little boy, I read about Jim Thorpe, how great he was. I was intrigued by Greek mythology. I remember reading about Zeus, the god of all gods in Greek mythology. I always thought Jim Thorpe lived on Mount Olympus.
To me, it was as if Jim Thorpe dwelt among the gods. You worship gods, and I worshiped Jim Thorpe. So he was more than a hero to me.
When I begin my spiritual journey, one of the first places I will visit is Mount Olympus and I will visit Jim Thorpe.
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IOC returns 1912 Olympic gold medals only to Jim Thorpe
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