Abel Kivi­at, Nation­al Cham­pi­on: Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Track and Field and the Melt­ing Pot

Alan S. Katchen
  • Review
By – December 2, 2011

Four decades before Roger Bannister’s four minute mile, and more than 50 years before Jim Ryun’s world records in the mile and half-mile races, there was Abel Kivi­at. America’s great­est mid­dle dis­tance run­ner of the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Kivi­at held four­teen indi­vid­ual and five relay world records, and as Alan S. Katchen relates in 

Abel Kivi­at, Nation­al Cham­pi­on, Kiviat’s sto­ry sheds light both on the era of his sport’s mod­ern­iza­tion and on the process of assim­i­la­tion of immi­grant, work­ing class ath­letes.”

Born in 1892, Abel thrived when the fam­i­ly moved from the teem­ing Low­er East Side to spa­cious Stat­en Island. He dis­tin­guished him­self as a run­ner and base­ball play­er at Cur­tis High School and with the Irish-Amer­i­can Ath­let­ic Club, one of the great Ama­teur Ath­let­ic Union (AAU) teams of the time. A sil­ver medal win­ner in the 1912 Olympics, Kivi­at remained an active run­ner through the 1920’s, rec­og­nized in the media’s casu­al eth­no­cen­trism of the time as the Hebrew Run­ner.” Yet beyond sports, this is also a dark­er tale of sanc­tioned chi­canery, lead­ing to Kiviat’s sus­pen­sion from ama­teur ath­let­ics, which Katchen attrib­ut­es to anti-Semi­tism, for accept­ing appear­ance mon­ey.” Fur­ther, as com­pared to the order­li­ness of the run­ning track, life for Kivi­at was much more com­pli­cat­ed, as evinced by his unhap­py first mar­riage and his estrange­ment from his only son. 

Katchen has writ­ten a care­ful­ly researched biog­ra­phy which was orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed for young read­ers. But what emerged is a more com­plex sto­ry, filled with insights into how one’s envi­ron­ment influ­ences a person’s behav­ior and beliefs. For Abel Kivi­at, run­ning was easy. It was liv­ing that was hard.
Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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