Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track and Field and the Melting Pot (Sports and Entertainment)
Syracuse University Press, 2009
391 pp., $34.95
"The Hebrew Runner"
In a world where televised sports are ubiquitous—soccer and American football, baseball and basketball, tennis and volleyball, hockey and golf, car racing and horse racing, on and on, all year round—it's hard to imagine the very different world of American sports a century ago. One point of entry is Alan Katchen's biography of Abel Kiviat, an athlete who set fire to many middle distance events in the second decade of the 20th century. By the time he was in his early twenties, Kiviat held world records in the 1500 meters, indoor mile, indoor half-mile, and 1000 yards. A cabin mate of the famous Jim Thorpe during the 1912 Olympics, Kiviat earned a silver medal in Stockholm's 1500 meters. Though lost to public memory, Kiviat was a household name at a time when track & field loomed larger on the sporting scene than it does today. Fans followed heated contests between rival athletic clubs, and sports pages were filled with news and results.
Katchen researched Kiviat's life for nearly a decade. Though not a book to turn to for its poetry or theatricalization of the athlete's life, Katchen's biography persuasively argues that Kiviat, nicknamed "the Hebrew Runner," was effectively acculturated into American society through the sport of track & field.
"He was a complicated man," says Katchen, who teaches courses on racial and ethnic relations at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. The author sets the tone by examining the household of Abel's youth in Staten Island, under the rule of a father who was detached and difficult to live with. "It was a psychologically tense family, and though I'm not a determinist, that did affect him and each of his siblings."
The book is the product of prodigious research, with Katchen's historical digging taking him to stops throughout the United States and abroad. Earlier in his career, Katchen spent 23 years with the Anti-Defamation League, during most of which he served as regional director in various parts of the country. He had originally set out to research Kiviat's life for a children's book, but the project grew as he began to delve into the runner's life.
Kiviat was born to parents who observed the Sabbath and spoke Yiddish in the home. He excelled in track in his teen years, quick enough in the middle distances (880 yards, 1500 meters) that he was recruited to run for the Irish American Athletic Club and go into training full-time in 1908. Kiviat dropped out of high school the following year. The Irish Club, a premier athletics organization in New York a hundred years ago, was Kiviat's launching pad for international stardom.
Kiviat established his first world record while still a high school student. When just 18, he anchored the Irish Club's world record 4 x 880 yard relay (today 4 x 800 meter), in front of 10,000 spectators. Katchen captures the popular appeal of track in his account of the Baxter Mile, a prestigious race at the time in New York:
The hoopla in the papers all that week, reminding everyone this was an Olympic year, whipped up spectator interest. On Saturday night, an unexpectedly large crowd of ten thousand jammed Broadway and Sixty-eighth Street in front of the Twenty-second Regiment Armory, proving a problem for an inadequate police detail and delaying the start of the meet for an hour. When Hugh Baxter, the middle-aged donor of the Baxter Cup, realized he might not make it through the crush into the building, he followed the example of the Cornell and Dartmouth relay teams and climbed up on the roof and through a skylight.
The polyglot Irish Club also served as a perfect vehicle for assimilation and acculturation, a home away from home for athletes of a variety of ethnicities and faiths. Katchen masterfully captures the interfaith elements and cross-cultural collaborations of those early days in Staten Island for Kiviat and his teammates. Through Kiviat's early boyhood, Sabbath was the high point of the week for his family. At the same time, Abel developed strong friendships with people from different faiths and cultures, particularly his Catholic neighbors. (Kiviat's success competing for the Irish Club evoked the quip that he was "America's most famous Irish Jew.") He and friends even slipped into each other's religious services at times.
Though élite athletes enjoyed much more modest lifestyles than the stars of today, Katchen shows how Kiviat's success on the track opened doors for him in the city as a young man. The big department stores, including Macy's, had rival track teams and would compete against each other frequently in meets. Well-known track stars would be recruited to work for the department stores for this purpose but also as an effective advertising strategy: to win an élite meet with the name of the store emblazoned across the chest was valuable publicity for the burgeoning department store market. So it was for Kiviat. "Through the intervention of the Irish Club," Katchen writes, "the Wanamaker Department Store hired him as a sporting goods salesman …. Kiviat was fortunate to land this position because Wanamaker's did not usually hire Jews. As one of a small number of children of Jewish immigrants who were able to find work as salesmen in American department stores before 1920, Kiviat was also a pioneer."