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Published: Tuesday, 6/4/2013

Final forfeit

Say the name “Jim Thorpe,” and it’s a fair bet that anyone under 25 might not know it. Sportswriters and historians remember him, but it’s been a long time since Jim Thorpe was a household name.

To many, though, he was the best athlete of the 20th century, arguably of any century. Now his name is back in the news because of an unusual legal dispute. Although the case raises an important issue, the whole thing is a shame.

Mr. Thorpe deserves to be remembered for what he did. He won gold medals at the 1912 Olympics in two of the most demanding events: the decathlon and pentathlon. He played professional baseball and football. He is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, as a pioneer of the game.

Although there seemed to be nothing athletic he could not do, he had a troubled life. Of mixed Native American and European ancestry, he grew up poor in Oklahoma and went to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania for his education.

He was stripped of his Olympic medals for forfeiting his amateur status by earlier playing semipro baseball. The International Olympic Committee posthumously restored the medals 70 years later.

In 1953, shortly after Mr. Thorpe died of a heart attack, his third wife, Patricia, reached an agreement with several small communities that were tired of their obscurity and offered to become the borough of Jim Thorpe if the great athlete was buried there. Although he never visited in life, he remains in death in a Pennsylvania town that bears his name.

But maybe not forever: His sons filed suit to have their father’s remains disinterred and returned to rest with the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, the tribe to which Mr. Thorpe belonged.

His family is not united on the issue; a grandson is opposed to moving the remains. Recently, though, a federal judge sided with the sons under terms of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

That law has been important in protecting Native American graves from desecration. But it hardly seems to fit this case, and the ruling is being appealed. Mr. Thorpe was never buried in Oklahoma. His burial in the Pennsylvania town was meant to honor him, even as it brought attention to the community.

This matter will be for the courts to decide. But if his remains are moved, posterity may decide that Jim Thorpe’s fame, already fading, may also be interred. That would be lamentable.



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