Preserving the Wheaties Box That (Finally) Honored Olympian Jim Thorpe

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Jim Thorpe, a Native American track and field and football star, was considered "the world's greatest athlete" for his record-setting performance in the 1912 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee later stripped him of his medals when they discovered he had briefly played professional baseball, violating their strict code of amateurism. In 2001, Wheaties honored him with his own box of the breakfast cereal, which is now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian as a part of their exhibit, "Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics." In this short documentary produced for Smithsonian by Jeff Campagna and Ryan Reed, a paper conservator at the Smithsonian Archives, Nora Lockshin, explains what goes into preserving an iconic box of Wheaties for display. 

Jim Thorpe Library of Congress

Sally Jenkins tells Thorpe's story in Smithsonian:

It’s been 100 years since Jim Thorpe dashed through the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, and we’re still chasing him. Greatest-evers are always hard to quantify, but Thorpe is especially so, a laconic, evasive passerby who defies Olympic idealizing. A breakfast of champions for Thorpe was no bowl of cereal. It was fried squirrel with creamed gravy after running all night in the woods at the heels of his dogs. Try catching up with that.

He was a reticent Sac and Fox Indian from the Oklahoma frontier, orphaned as a teenager and raised as a ward of government schools, uncomfortable in the public eye. When King Gustaf V of Sweden placed two gold medals around Thorpe’s neck for winning the Olympic pentathlon and decathlon and pronounced him the greatest athlete in the world, he famously muttered, “Thanks,” and ducked more illustrious social invitations to celebrate at a succession of hotel bars. “I didn’t wish to be gazed upon as a curiosity,” he said.

Thorpe’s epic performance in the 15 events that made up the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Summer Games remains the most solid reflection we have of him. Yet even that has a somewhat shadowy aspect. The International Olympic Committee stripped his medals and struck his marks from the official record after learning that he had violated the rules of amateurism by playing minor-league baseball in 1909-10.

The full story, "Why Are Jim Thorpe's Olympic Records Still Not Recognized?" contains a fascinating account of his life and accomplishments. 

For more videos from Smithsonian Magazine, visit the YouTube channel

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg's work in media spans documentary television, advertising, and print. As a producer in the Viewer Created Content division of Al Gore's Current TV, she acquired and produced short documentaries by independent filmmakers around the world. Post-Current, she worked as a producer and strategist at Urgent Content, developing consumer-created and branded nonfiction campaigns for clients including Cisco, Ford, and GOOD Magazine. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University, where she was co-creator and editor in chief of H BOMB Magazine.

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