Abel Kiviat trading card, circa 1913
courtesy of the New York Public Library
courtesy of the New York Public Library
Abel Kiviat was one of the most colorful and popular track & field athletes of his generation. Kiviat won the Olympic silver medal at the 1,500m, and gold medal at the 3,000m team race, and he also competed in Olympic baseball as well! Blessed with a long life, Abel lived to within two months of his 100th birthday.
The following story, written by American Track & Field long time contributor, Jeff Benjamin, honors the one hundredth anniversary of Abel's amazing thirteen days of records! We hope that you enjoy it!
One hundred years later--Kiviat's Magical 13 Days--May 26th--June 8th 1912
By Jeff Benjamin
On June 8th, 1912, 20,000 sports fans jammed Harvard stadium to see if Abel Kiviat could do it again. During the last 12 days, Kiviat's performances had captivated not only the nation, but certain distinctive parts of it. A graduate of Curtis High School just a year earlier, the Staten Islander had also achieved prominence as one of America's greatest Jewish athletes. Now, American sports fans wanted to see if the young phenom who represented the prominent Irish-American Athletic Club could break not just one, but two world records in the same race!!
If a sports fan were to "google" sports records and look through the various sports, they would come across the track event known as the 1500 meters. Created for the 1900 Paris Olympic Games, the 1500, which is also known as the "Metric Mile" ( about 120 yards shorter than the actual mile) has been the standard event by which Olympic mile runners have been measured for over 100 years. At just 19 years old, Kiviat had already reached the peak of 1500 greatness. His rise in the track world was nothing short of astounding. Through the years of 1910 to1911, Kiviat dominated and won many events throughout the United States at different distances and in front of the large crowds which used to flock such venues as Madison Square Garden during the heyday of American track. That would all change in a meteoric rise in 1912.
On My 26th, 1912, Kiviat became the first man to run a 1500 meter race under 4 minutes, clocking 3 minutes 59 1/5 seconds in Celtic Park, Long Island. He then lowered it an incredible 3 seconds just 7 days later on the same Celtic track, running 3 minutes 56 4/5 seconds. Kiviat's name had now transcended track, as his exploits competed for the back pages of newspapers with the like of NY Giants Baseball star Christy Mathewson. Like all sports palyers of the time, there were sportscards of Kiviat issued along with the football and baseball stars of the era.
Now as he towed the line with eight others in a talent-deep field for his third 1500 meter race in 13 days, many wondered if Kiviat could do it again. This meet held more importance than any Kiviat had been in before, being that it was also one of the meets used for selecting the U.S. Olympic 1500 team. Also, meet officials were set up about 100 meters past the 1500 finish at the mile post, where they hoped to encourage Kiviat to run through it and possible verify a Mile world record as well.
As the gun sounded, America's best milers all jockeyed for position, but, after just 500 yards, they deferred to the 5 feet 5 inch, 110lb bowlegged Jewish Captain of the Irish-American Athletic Club. Kiviat, firmly in control over the likes of great American Milers like Norm Taber and Oscar Hedlund. Kiviat passed the half mile mark in 2 minutes, 3 seconds, and then 3/4 of a mile in 3 minutes, 9 seconds. Taber attempted to then move on Kiviat, who responded with a burst and crossed the l500 finish line 10 yards in front, culminating with a mark of 3:55.8, breaking his world record again!!
As the crowd cheeered and encouraged him, Kiviat continued on to the mile post, where meet officials waited with stopwatches to see what would happen. Kiviat, exhausted from his effort, struggled mightily over the last 120 yards to the mile post, where he was clocked in 4:15.6, which was only 0.2 seconds slower than the world record.
Nevertheless, the crowd, screaming wildly on their feet, were thrilled by his performance. Kiviat had set 3 world records in 13 days!!! On top of that, the 19 year old Jewish boy from Staten Island made the U.S. Olympic Team! Bound for Stockholm, Sweden, Kiviat was labeled by many as the favorite to win the Gold Medal.
Kiviat's opportunity for the Gold now seemed secure. The Olympic Final would take place Wednesday, July 10, 1912.
ABEL KIVIAT book cover courtesy of Winged Fist Books