Native American Olympians celebrated at Smithsonian

Jim Thorpe, a Native American athlete who competed in the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm.

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian celebrates the contributions of Native American athletes to the Olympics.

Olympic medals from three Native American athletes who competed in the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden are in a new exhibit opening at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

Inside the Smithsonian's new exhibit, "Best in the World,” Native American athletes - past and present - credit the legendary Jim Thorpe with opening Olympic doors.

Thorpe earned gold medals for the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912. It was a time when sports writers still used "redskin" and other racially-charged words to describe him and others.

“A lot of stereotyping. A lot of racial slurs,” says Jim Adams, the exhibit curator. “They were never allowed to forget that they were American Indian. A lot of them were called chief.”

His medals were later stripped away because Thorpe unknowingly violated the rules by playing semi-professional baseball before competing at the Olympics.

Despite the controversy, his career continued, with success in football, basketball, lacrosse and even ballroom dance.

“He was a national champion at ballroom dancing and if he were on one of the dancing programs today I'm sure he'd walk away a winner,” Adams says.

In 1983, 30 years after his death, the international Olympic committee restored Thorpe's titles and returned his medals to his family.

Today, his son is happy to see his father honored.

“Was he hurt? Disappointed? Yes he was,” says Billy Thorpe, Thorpe’s son. “I mean it's something he accomplished and only he knows how it felt.”

In fact, a recent ABC Sports poll named Thorpe the greatest athlete of the twentieth century, beating out Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan.

Now, just as Thorpe inspired him, another former Olympian featured in the exhibit - Billy Mills - also hopes to inspire younger Native Americans to get involved in sports.

“It gives you purpose and it gives you confidence and if we want teach our young to make the right decisions, to give them confidence, direction,” Mills says. “There are no dreams that are too big or impossible.”

The exhibit is open now through September 3rd at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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