Over a journalist’s career, there are athletes that affect one. Such is the case of Abel Kiviat, 1912 Olympic silver medalist and our Jeff Benjamin. Jeff wrote first about Abel for us in 1990, and wrote a super piece about Kiviat’s ARs in the late 1890s in the US.
Here is the story of Kiviat’s Olympic race, 100 years ago, and one day, July 10, 1912, and meetings that Benjamin was at, or hosted, 90 years later. We know that you will enjoy this one…..
100 years later–July 10th, 1912
By Jeff Benjamin–2nd in a two part series
With the 1912 Stockholm Olympics approaching, Staten Island’s Abel Kiviat (nicknamed “Kivie”) was the best miler in the world. Having qualified for the U.S. Olympic team with his 3rd 1500 meters world record established over a period of thirteen days, many had picked the Jewish-American star to bring home the gold. As the athletes departed on a boat to Stockholm, many felt the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team to be the best one ever assembled. Kiviat also made the acquaintance of Jim Thorpe, who would be his roommate on the boat. Once in Stockholm, the Olympian Kiviat, along with the major contenders, easily qualified for the 1500 meters final, which would be held on July 10th.
Before a packed stadium of 27,000, including monarchs and dignitaries from various nations (who ironically, would not meet again with World War One just 2 years away), Kiviat lined up on the outside lane of the 3 lap-to a mile track along with the other 13 competitors.
When the gun sounded, the field was led by Henri Arnaud of France who took the field through the 1/4 mile in 65 seconds and the 1/2 mile in 2 minutes, 8 seconds. Kivie kept right behind the leaders in this tactical race. Norman Taber of the U.S. then took the lead almost through the 3/4 mile mark before Kiviat took over the lead in 3 minutes, 9 seconds.
At the ringing of the bell, Kiviat took off, battling his American rivals, among them Taber, John Paul Jones, and 1908 Gold medalist Mel Sheppard. But, lurking in 6th place was Arnold Jackson of Great Britain, who had kept off the front pace and had begun his sprint to the line.
On the final turn, Kiviat was still holding on, when, literally out of nowhere, came the fast closing Jackson, who according the witnesses, looked like he leapt past Kiviat and Taber to take the Gold Medal before a delirious crowd. The exhausted Jackson had to be carried off the field by his British teammates, while in the first-ever of its kind, Olympic officials awarded Kiviat the silver medal over Taber in the first ever photo-Finish.
Eight of the ten best 1500s of all time had been run in this race, called by track historians the greatest 1500 ever run in Olympic history!! Kiviat would later return to the track in the 3000 meter team relay (an event no longer contested) and help his American teammates earn the Gold Medal. He also was involved in an Olympic exhibition Baseball game, a sport which he also had competed in while a student at Curtis High School.
Upon his arrival home, Kivie was still regarded as a sports celebrity. His parents hung his Olympic jersey and his medals in a room in their Rosebank home. He also met former President Theodore Roosevelt. Kiviat continued in the sport on and off for the next 15 years, then later served as a press steward, coach (including at Wagner College) and track official throughout the years.
Kiviat also worked as a Court Officer, and later retired to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Years later, Kiviat would from time to time reflect on his 1912 Olympic 1500 meter race as a failure. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun many years later, Kiviat admitted that he sometimes woke up at night and “I wondered why I didn’t win”.
Postscript--In 1981 the 89 year old Kiviat was honored by former New York Road Runners Club President Fred Lebow as America’s oldest Olympic medal winner. His rediscovery by the public led to many honors and acknowledgements, including carrying the 1984 Olympic Torch and an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The late film director Bud Greenspan also brought Kiviat out to the Stockholm Olympic Stadium in 1984, where the 92 year old told his story on television. When it was reported in 1988 that his Olympic medals were unaccounted for, the great-grandson of the King of Sweden, who had presented Kivie with the originals in 1912, presented him with replica medals in a ceremony in New Jersey. He also met former President George H.W. Bush in the White House in 1989. In 1991, Kiviat passed away at the age of 99, the world’s oldest living Olympic medalist. It was hoped that had he lived to be 100, he would have lit the torch to open the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. His medals and awards, along with the replica Olympic Gold and Silver medals, are on display today in Curtis High School, his Alma Mater. In 1995, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1990, I had the honor of hosting Abel Kiviat at the Staten Island Athletic Club awards dinner. I always recall that, as my friends and I drove him home that night, the 98 year old Kiviat was just as sharp as ever and quite funny. When we pulled up to his home, a friend of mine asked Kiviat if he could see his track awards. Kiviat replied sharply, “You got time?”.