A "Great Match Race" and another Surprising Jewish Athlete

Art Remillard

My summer break begins, and an ambitious reading list awaits. At the top of my pile are two books--interestingly enough--both about endurance. First, John Eisenberg's The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America's First Sports Spectacle.

The Great Match Race is a captivating account of America's first sports spectacle, a horse race that pitted North against South in three grueling heats. On a bright afternoon in May 1823, an unprecedented sixty thousand people showed up to watch two horses run the equivalent of nine Kentucky Derbys in a few hours' time. Eclipse was the majestic champion representing the North, and Henry, an equine arriviste, was the pride of the South. Their match race would come to represent a watershed moment in American history, crystallizing the differences that so fundamentally divided the country. The renowned sportswriter John Eisenberg captures all the pulse-pounding drama and behind-the-scenes tensions in a page-turning mix of history, horse racing, and pure entertainment.

Next up is Alan S. Katchen's Abel Kiviat, National Champion: Twentieth-Century Track & Field and the Melting Pot. Even though I'm a running geek, I'll confess that I had never heard of Kiviat until I saw this title. So I'm very excited to read it, and recommend it to all my running geek friends...

Abel Kiviat (1892-1991) was one of track and field’s legendary personalities, a world record-holder and Olympic medalist in the metric mile. A teenage prodigy, he defeated Hall of Fame runners before his twentieth birthday. Alan S. Katchen brings Kiviat’s fascinating story to life and re-creates a lost world, when track and field was at the height of its popularity and occupying a central place in America’s sporting world. The oldest of seven children of Moishe and Zelda Kiviat, Jewish immigrants from Poland, Abel competed as "the Hebrew runner" for New York’s famed Irish-American Athletic Club and was elected its captain. Katchen’s engaging biography centers Abel Kiviat’s life and his sport firmly in the context of American social history. As a quintessential New Yorker, Kiviat embodies the urban and ethnic roots of American track. From his first schoolboy competitions on city playgrounds, to his world records at Madison Square Garden, to his pioneering role as track’s press steward in the age of emerging media, Kiviat’s life reveals how his sport was shaped by the culture of the emerging metropolis.

Without reading either book, I can only speculate that both emphasize that America's sporting landscape wasn't always dominated by the "holy trinity" of sports: baseball, basketball, and football. Additionally, it seems that they do what good sports histories should do--show how sports shape and are shaped by the powerful social forces of a given time and place.

So it would seem that my summer is off to a great start. We'll see what happens by August.