- Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track and Field and the Melting Pot
Avraham Richard "Abel" Kiviat (June 23, 1892-August 24, 1991) was U.S. National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) one-mile and cross-country champion, as well as a silver medal winner in the 1,500-meter run and the fourth member of the gold medal winning 3,000-meter team race at the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912. He also set the World Record in the 1,500-meter run (3:55.8) in the Olympic trials at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on June 8, 1912. Little known outside the five boroughs of New York City and along the East Coast between Boston and Baltimore, Abel Kiviat, a Jewish-American high school dropout who grew up on Staten Island, ran for the Irish-American Athletic Club at a time when athletic clubs that belonged to the AAU dominated amateur athletics--and particularly track and field—in America.
Abel was a remarkable athlete with a problem-plagued personal life. He was not a good student and prone to misrepresent his achievements. He had two unhappy marriages—in the words of his second wife "he was difficult to live with" and at times "crude" with "a sense of entitlement." He was deeply attached to his mother, alienated from his father, and frequently managed to estrange his own son and siblings. Moreover, he was banned from participation in amateur athletics from 1916 to 1923 for violating AAU rules governing expense reimbursement from meet promoters. Still, Abel could be unpretentious, hardworking, helpful, and generous.
Like Harold Abrahams, Abel had minimal involvement in the boycott movement preceding the 1936 Olympic games but did help manage the World Athletic Carnival on Randall's Island billed by Judge Jeremiah Mahoney as an alternative to the Nazi Olympics. Best of all, after completing his active athletic career and serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Kiviat did years of volunteer work for AAU events at Madison Square Garden, the Millrose Games, and the Penn Relays.
Biographer Alan Katchen, who taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Howard University and is currently adjunct professor of history at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, has pieced together a brilliant exploration of Abel Kiviat's life and the context within which his athletic life was lived. Through painstaking research, Professor Katchen has provided an accurate, insightful, and balanced picture of Lawson Robertson's Celtic Park Irish-American Athletic Club and Thirteenth Coast Artillery track teams, the East Coast AAU cabal during the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Olympic games in 1912, and the racial and class prejudices immigrant, native-American, African-American, [End Page 170] and working-class athletes were forced to endure to compete in elite track and field competition during the first two-thirds of the last century.
Abel Kiviat, National Champion is a well-written book, a superb piece of research, and a significant contribution to the history of American track and field.