Abel Kiviat is not exactly a household name, even in the small universe of elite Jewish athletes. Alan Katchen hopes to change that with his new biography on the Olympic medal winner.
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.