Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track & Field and the Melting Pot
By Alan S. Katchen
Syracuse University Press, 320 pages, $34.95
Saturday, June 14, 1924: Abel Kiviat twists his ankle on a barrier during the Olympic trials in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at Harvard Stadium, falling flat on his face. Then and there, the future International Jewish Sports and National Track & Field Hall of Famer decides to quit, even before the meet ends.
A little more than a year later, he once again trips and falls, this time during the 1,000-meter event at the Wilco Games, an amateur athletic event held in Brooklyn. It was his last official race. This was not the way it was supposed to end for a man once labeled one of the “greatest middle-distance runners in the world,” a man who was 0.2 seconds away from winning a gold medal during the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm.
It was a far different scene from the one almost 14 years earlier, when Kiviat set three world records in 13 days of competition. First, he set 1,500-meter world record. Then, a week later broke his own record in a race at New York City’s Celtic Park in that same distance, and, during a race just six days later, beat that time yet again, finally clocking in at 3:55.8 for the 1,500 meter. The third, which was set at Harvard Stadium, would be one of 14 world records achieved by Kiviat as an amateur athlete, a remarkable record for the high school dropout and son of Polish-Jewish immigrants.
Kiviat’s upbringing in Staten Island, and his rise to track and field glory, is explored in Alan S. Katchen’s book, “Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track & Field and the Melting Pot.” In addition to examining the young Jewish runner and his rise to fame, Katchen considers the state of track and field competition during the earlier part of the century and the status it enjoyed in America.
But make no mistake, Kiviat is the star of this story.
Prior to his experience as a world-famous runner, Kiviat had a strong Jewish upbringing. He was brought up in a Yiddish-speaking, Sabbath-observing home and taught to read Hebrew. The Sabbath was the sole day of rest for the chaotic family of nine (Abel was one of seven children). “My parents would send us out to call a non-Jewish boy to light the lights and start the stove once the Sabbath began,” Kiviat said. After his bar mitzvah in 1905, however, his parents did not push him to continue his religious study.
From his early days at Curtis High School, Kiviat displayed amazing athletic abilities. Shattering stereotypes of unathletic Jews, he excelled at football, baseball, and track and field. Abel’s parents never understood their son’s interest in sports. Katchen notably points out their embrace of the European notion that “athletics [was] an arena for gentiles.” In fact, in response to an article on baseball, Moishe Kiviat, Abel’s father, wrote to the Jewish Daily Forward in 1903, stating, “I want my son to grow up to be a mensh, not a wild American runner.” Nonetheless, Abel’s parents still let him go out to play sports, which was to lead to his fame, if not fortune.
The details and personal accounts Katchen uses to tell Kiviat’s story are structured and compelling. Katchen does a particularly good job of recounting the accusation that Kiviat accepted money to race in an event, and of the ensuing effort to suspend and ban him from amateur competition altogether. The incident illustrates the deep-rooted antisemitism that existed in America at that time: a period when Fred Rubien, president of the Metropolitan Association of the Amateur Athletic Union, would intentionally look to destroy Kiviat’s career as a runner.
But track and field was such an important part of national athletics in America during the early to mid-1900s that despite antisemitism Kiviat was mentioned regularly in the sports sections of all the big New York newspapers, including The New York Times, the New York Evening Mail and the New York Tribune, as well as in papers outside the city, such as the Boston Globe, and as far away as London’s Daily Telegraph.
Keep in mind that Kiviat’s popularity arrived prior to Sandy Koufax’s Hall of Fame pitching career and swimmer Mark Spitz’s historic run at the 1972 Olympic Games. Sam Friedland, who would later make a name for himself as a supermarket mogul after founding Food Fair Inc., explained the sensation felt by younger Jews during Kiviat’s rise to fame, a time when an individual such as Friedland had felt the absence of a great Jewish athlete.
“Baseball was Irish and German in the McGraw and Wagner days….Boxing was Sullivan Corbett and Fitzsimmons. Then, out of complete void of Jewish athletics, the name Abel Kiviat started to show up regularly on the sport pages…We Jewish kids, who could read, started to walk a little straighter. We had a hero, a Jew who could beat goyim.”
Alex Suskind is a freelance writer living in Queens. He has written for International Musician Journal, Making Music Magazine and Wax Poetics.
Read more: http://forward.com/articles/120556/the-hebrew-runner/#ixzz247GNZFu7
From the New Jersey Jewish News
Loneliness of a middle-distance Jewish runner
Kiviat was born in 1892 on the Lower East Side to immigrant parents. The family moved to Staten Island, where he excelled in baseball and track as a youth. Given his diminutive stature — he grew to five-feet, five-inches and 110 pounds — Kiviat decided to concentrate on running. As a teenager, he joined the elite Irish American Athletic Club, eventually being named captain of the group. He won a silver medal in the 1,500 meter race at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm as well as several national championships in various middle distances between 1911 and 1914.
In a telephone interview from his home in Columbus, Ohio, Katchen told NJ Jewish News his reasons for spending 10 years working on Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track & Field and the Melting Pot (Syracuse). “I realized there has not been a lot of historical information and narrative about the history of the sport,” which was “basically invented by the British in the mid-19th century and became very popular in the United States. High school track was particularly important and received wide [press] coverage.” The author includes numerous references to dozens of newspapers stories about Kiviat’s heroic exploits when he was still in public school.
Katchen, 71, was member of his high school and college teams. When he was 16, he unknowingly met Kiviat, who just happened to be serving as an official for an event in which Katchen was running. “He chastised me and another fellow for running poorly in the race,” Katchen recalled. Years later, when he began working on the book, he came across a photo of the old legend taken in the 1950s and realized that this was “the guy who harassed me at the track meet.”
According to Katchen — a former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and college professor — Kiviat faced a great deal of anti-Semitism as an athlete. “I think any great personality is going to have some people who are enemies of what they accomplish, but Kiviat’s situation went far beyond that,” he said.
Kiviat was accused of violating the tenets of amateurism by accepting what Katchen described as “a modest amount of money” to attend various meets. Following a hearing in 1916, Kiviat was banned from amateur competition for life at the age of 24.
The administrators of track and field were “basically upper class WASPs,” many of whom “shared the pervasive bigotry of the times,” said Katchen, who was shocked by “the casual way in which it was expressed and that it made its way into athletics, which is supposed to be about fair play.”
After serving in World War I, he applied for — and was granted — reinstatement. At the “advanced age” of 32, he still managed to make a fine showing in national championships.
Like many of his generation, Kiviat was embarrassed as a child by his Orthodox upbringing, but Katchen said, in later years “the persona of a Jewish athlete did a lot of good for the Jewish community.”
“As a number of his contemporaries pointed out, when he started there weren’t a lot of Jews in sports…and he became a role model,” Katchen said. “Over time, he not only became more accepting but embraced his Jewishness and wore it proudly. Because he was such a prominent guy not just as an athlete but later as an important official, he certainly helped make the case…that the limited perspective of the leadership of track and field was not acceptable in a democratic society. I think that helped move the sport into a more democratic structure it has today.”
Kiviat died in August 1991 at the age of 99. But he enjoyed a new-found popularity in his golden years as the oldest remaining Olympic medalist. After falling out of the limelight for almost 60 years, Kiviat was “rediscovered” prior to the 1980 summer games in Los Angeles. He was chosen to run the second leg of the torch relay across America, receiving the symbol of the games from the grandchildren of Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe (the latter a teammate in the 1912 games) in Manhattan. “The night after he carried the torch he was on the Johnny Carson show,” Katchen said.