Fire on the track Betty Robinson and the triumph of the early Olympic women

Roseanne Montillo

Book - 2017

"The inspiring and irresistible true story of the women who broke barriers and finish-line ribbons in pursuit of Olympic Gold When Betty Robinson assumed the starting position at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, she was participating in what was only her fourth-ever organized track meet. She crossed the finish line as a gold medalist and the fastest woman in the world. This improbable athletic phenom was an ordinary high school student, discovered running for a train in rural Illinois m...ere months before her Olympic debut. Amsterdam made her a star. But at the top of her game, her career (and life) almost came to a tragic end when a plane she and her cousin were piloting crashed. So dire was Betty's condition that she was taken to the local morgue; only upon the undertaker's inspection was it determined she was still breathing. Betty, once a natural runner who always coasted to victory, soon found herself fighting to walk. While Betty was recovering, the other women of Track and Field were given the chance to shine in the Los Angeles Games, building on Betty's pioneering role as the first female Olympic champion in the sport. These athletes became more visible and more accepted, as stars like Babe Didrikson and Stella Walsh showed the world what women could do. And--miraculously--through grit and countless hours of training, Betty earned her way onto the 1936 Olympic team, again locking her sights on gold as she and her American teammates went up against the German favorites in Hitler's Berlin. Told in vivid detail with novelistic flair, Fire on the Track is an unforgettable portrait of these trailblazers in action"--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 796.42092/Robinson Withdrawn
New York : Crown [2017]
First edition
Physical Description
285 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [253]-273) and index.
Main Author
Roseanne Montillo (author)
  • Prologue
  • Part one. Amsterdam, 1928 : On track ; A new arrival ; A new pair of shoes ; The debut ; Off to the races ; Off to the games ; The SS President Roosevelt ; Queen of the track ; A new Babe in town ; Welcome home
  • Part two. Los Angeles, 1932 : Flying high ; Summer woes ; California dreaming ; Go west, young woman, go west
  • Part three. Berlin, 1936 : The Nazi games ; Rebound ; Off to Berlin ; Phenoms
  • Epilogue.
Review by New York Times Review

SPORTS AS ESCAPE has always been a myth, and I have never been reminded of that so clearly as I was recently before the singing of the national anthem at a marathon in the rural South, when the starter said that anyone who knelt was going to get a "butt whuppin'." (I wondered especially how the African-American runners who had trained for months for the race felt about that jolly send-off.) Over the past month, I have steeped myself in some dozen new sports books, and all seemed, to varying degrees, to speak to the tenor of the times. Or maybe the tenor is sounding a note so long and shrill it seems like white noise in the background for everything. The Golden State Warriors' contretemps with the president over a withdrawn invitation to the White House seized a news cycle, and their subsequent statement that they "celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion" is reflected, for instance, in their hiring of the team president Rick Welts, "the highest-ranking out-gay team executive in American professional sports," as Erik Malinowski puts it in BETABALL: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History (Atria, $26). The phenomenon of Stephen Curry and the sudden rise of the Warriors to the N.B.A.'s heights deserve a deep dive, but "Betaball" is more often a disappointing data dump. Beginning with the purchase of the Warriors in 2010 by the venture capital wizard Joe Lacob, Malinowski, the Warriors beat writer for Bleacher Report, plods along through accounts of seven seasons, too infrequently rising from the morass of statistics and overly detailed game accounts to tell stories of outside-the-box thinking like those that animated Michael Lewis's "Moneyball," the ur-front-office-chronicle. (Game 1 of the 2012-13 second-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs takes nearly three pages.) When Malinowski homes in on those innovations that the Warriors adopted or developed, the stories are revealing. In one case, the coach Steve Kerr heeds the advice of the team's performance trainer, Keke Lyles, to consult the Stanford University sleep researcher Cheri Mah, who proposed strategies (like limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes) to mitigate the effects of long-distance travel. Elsewhere, Malinowski convincingly makes the case that the organization's openness to using new sources of data and to adopting suggestions up and down the organizational chart - reflecting Lacob's Silicon Valley background - gives the Warriors a leg up on the opposition. Those accounts, however, are buried in the rote narration of the various seasons. Sentences like this are not uncommon: "David Lee, pouring in 19 points and nearly 11 boards while playing in 51 of Golden State's first 52 games, was named as a reserve for the Western Conference All-Star squad, the first time a Warrior had been named to the All-Star team in 16 years, since Latreli Sprewell in 1997." These may be sweet memories for hard-core Warriors fans, but they obscure the promised tale in the subtitle. (I also feel obligated to warn potential audiobook listeners that "David Lee" is about the only name the reader doesn't mispronounce.) If Malinowski's book posits that winning through analytics and a diversity of opinion is the wave of the future, Mike Mclntire, an investigative journalist with The New York Times, offers a chronicle of a team that succeeds the old-fashioned way: bending, breaking and ignoring the rules. CHAMPIONS WAY: Football, Florida, and the Lost Soul of College Sports (Norton, $26.95) documents how big-time college programs like Llorida State massage egos, flout the law, bow down to the almighty dollar and make a mockery of the term "student-athlete" in order to keep winning. (Why the subtitle doesn't add "State" to "Llorida" is a puzzle, though.) Mclntire doesn't mention it in the book, but The Onion had been on this case as long ago as 2006 when it headlined a satirical piece "Llorida State University to Phase Out Academic Operations by 2010." If the university had taken that route, we wouldn't be reading about Christie Suggs, a teaching assistant at the College of Business's Dedman School of Hospitality, "located in a rather odd place on... campus: the south end zone of the Seminóles' football stadium." Troubled by the shoddy, incomplete and plagiarized work of football players in online classes ("Coffee, Tea & International Culture" was one) and faced with unresponsive higher-ups, she reluctantly becomes a whistle-blower, but finds her concerns unaddressed and her work responsibilities reduced, notably as the Seminóles are marching toward a national championship season in 2013, led by the star quarterback Jaméis Winston. More harrowing and better known is the story of Erica Kinsman, a Llorida State freshman in 2012, who alleged that she was raped by Winston but whose complaint, Mclntire says, was insufficiently investigated by the Tallahassee police and her case further undermined by athletic department machinations. (Winston was never charged, and the university eventually settled with Kinsman.) Unrelenting in railing against these improprieties and many others on campus, like embezzlement in the booster club and the sordid influence of the rapper Luther Campbell, Mclntire paints a grim picture of a culture of malfeasance, particularly in its treatment of women, at the heart of college athletics. Yet as briskly and passionately as he lays out the horrors in Tallahassee and elsewhere, there's little that's surprising, nor does he plot any way forward. Exposing wrongdoing is the investigative journalist's raison d'etre but Mclntire's account of the systemic depth of its entrenchment leaves one despairing of any potential corrective. The popularity of the rediscovered historical sports narrative, â la "Seabiscuit" and "The Boys in the Boat," has sent microfilm reels spinning, and Roseanne Montillo's FIRE ON THE TRACK: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women (Crown, $27) brings to light the accomplishments of women track athletes of nearly a century ago, who struggled to overcome old-boy resistance and misogynistic discrimination in pursuing their goals. The book is a worthy addition to the genre but also demonstrates its limitations. In the first half, I found the portrait of Robinson, the Olympic 100-meter-dash champion in 1928 (when women were first allowed to compete), lacking in complexity, despite her survival of a dramatic plane crash and rehabilitation after. The "Notes and Sources" seem to indicate substantial reliance, perhaps overly so in the absence of many primary sources, on Montillo's correspondence with Robinson's son. Whatever the case, her style tends to the overheated, whether because of the paucity of sources or not: "She felt her muscles come alive as she dashed down the track, the auditorium pulsating wildly as time seemed to stop altogether yet simultaneously blast forward faster than she could ever have imagined." Weather conditions, one of the readily available sources, seem to get outsize importance and emphasis in her re-creations. It's worth sticking with the book, however, through the second half, which picks up speed in the minibiographies of Babe Didrikson and lesser-known figures like Stella Walsh, a Clevelander who raced for Poland in the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, and whose strength and speed and refusal to shower with others provoked rumors about her true sex. There is also Helen Stephens, whose frank diary describes an awkward encounter with Hitler after her win in the 100-meter dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and her own battle with the general presumption that "no one that tall, with a stride that long, nearly six feet, with a form so graceless, could be anything other than a man." (She was subjected to a clinical examination to confirm her eligibility.) By covering a wider range of personalities in the second half of her book, Montillo succinctly adds context to prevailing - and appalling - views and thus elevates the accomplishments of all the women competing in track. Had she been playing 80 years ago, Maria Sharapova, at 6-foot-2 and fiercely competitive, might have suffered Stephens's fate and had her femininity not just questioned but physically confirmed. In any case, it's disturbing to read in UNSTOPPABLE: My Life So Far (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28), the memoir that she's written with Rich Cohen, that she's so oblivious to women's body-image issues she says of Serena Williams, "she has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall." Williams is 5-foot-9. "Even now, she can make me feel like a little girl." If not overtly racist, the statements play into racial stereotypes, implying that Williams, who holds a lifetime 19-2 record over Sharapova, has beaten the "little girl" merely by overpowering her, not through tactical acumen and other skills of the game. I'm inclined to believe Sharapova that her doping, which caused her to be barred from the tour for 15 months, was inadvertent. And I admire her on-court tenacity and her marketing savvy. But if she really wants to help the "many young girls, who had been inspired by my example and my life" and whom she heard from during her suspension, she would do well to reflect on the way she thinks and speaks about other women. Her inspirational words for those girls: "The record book? Posterity? [Expletive] that. Did you hear what that girl said about me at the press conference? That's what gets me going." I found a balm for Sharapovian self-absorption in Simon Critchley's slim what we THINK ABOUT WHEN WE THINK ABOUT SOCCER (Penguin, $20), whose title is an obvious nod to Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" (its own title a nod to a Raymond Carver story) and whose green cover seems copied from last year's David Foster Wallace collection of tennis writing, "String Theory." I admit to being a sucker for this kind of intellectual maundering about the meaning of sports, but I know plenty of sports fans can't stand it. Critchley trots out Sartre, Foucault and especially Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose idea of the "tragic pensiveness" of the spectator at ancient theater Critchley links to a soccer crowd's participation, which is not "aloof from the action" but "constantly attentive." Further, he asserts, adopting Hegel's terms, that "the being of the players is not being-in-itself, but being-for-us, mediated through the spectators and requiring their recognition in order to affirm the players' existence." He does have the good sense to augment such bicycle-kick difficulty with simpler wisdom from soccer philosophers like the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who once said: "The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the way to live and be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other." Much that Critchley muses on about soccer could be equally applicable to other team sports, and he doesn't shy away from soccer's long history of hooliganism, corruption and sexism. Critchley's most bracing commentary may be that on Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon's 2006 film "Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait," about the French star: "On the one hand, it gives us a sense of the capture of reality by commodified images in the century into which we have slowly slouched our way. But on the other hand... there is the suggestion, the adumbration of an inaccessible interiority, a reality that resists commodification." Call it a header-in-the-clouds book. My favorite book of the bunch, and the one that best captures the American sports landscape in these times, is not about any competition on the field but about the landscape-clearing constructions where the games take place. THE ARENA: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport (Liveright, $27.95), by the freelance writer Ráfi Kohan, is smart, readable, deeply reported and researched, engagingly personal, funny and often surprisingly poignant. Kohan traverses the country from Green Bay's Lambeau Field to New York's Citi Field to San Diego's Petco Park, embedding with the stadium Everymen and Everywomen who are the nobodies of the sports world. They are the people who tend the grass, change scoreboard numbers, sell food and logo merchandise, scalp tickets and wear mascot costumes. Of Brad Collins, who inhabits the character of Sluggerrr, the Kansas City Royals' lion mascot, Kohan writes, "After frolicking on the field in 90-degree heat for pregame festivities and player introductions," Collins enters the windowless mascot quarters, "slams the door and rips off his Sluggerrr head, which is not insubstantial, about one and a half feet square. The stench is immediate and overpowering, like lifting the cover off a cake tray filled with soggy gym socks." Don't mistake the breezy style for lack of substance. Amid a section on the Dallas Cowboys' stadium in Arlington, Texas (that is, Jerry's World, for the team's owner, Jerry Jones), Kohan describes over-the-top amenities like a $15 million sculpture by Anish Kapoor (which looks like "a celestial magnifying glass, as if God were frying Cowboys fans like ants"), but the section also undertakes a comprehensive, cogent survey of the literature on stadium economics. Other chapters explore the pathos of minimumwage groundskeepers, detail the rollercoaster life of the halftime acrobat the Amazing Sládek and reveal illicit deals vendors cut to earn a few extra dollars - and management's efforts to catch them. Kohan's penultimate chapter is called "Sex. War. America," and it covers the way that sports has appropriated and intermixed that triad to tease out emotion and profit, portrayed memorably in Ben Fountain's novel "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," based on the Dallas Cowboys' 2004 Thanksgiving Day halftime show. Fountain tells him, "just seeing the display of militarism, American exceptionalism, pop music, soft-core porn all mixed together in this kind of crazy to-do - I started feeling like it was its own kind of voodoo." Kohan also reminds us of a 2015 report from Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain revealing undisclosed payments from the Department of Defense to teams in order to fund military tributes, what Kohan calls "camouflaged propaganda." The issue, for the senators and others, was one of transparency. Kohan is sincerely moved at Marine Corps Appreciation Day in San Diego (paid for by the team, not Defense) as he watches a mother reunite with her teenage son for the first time since he left home for boot camp. At the same time, he states, "In the post-9/11 era, pressure has been growing inside stadiums - often implicitly - to participate in group patriotism." And outside stadiums, explicitly, at small-town marathons, before the starting gun fires. JAY JENNINGS, the senior editor at Oxford American magazine, is the author of "Carry the Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 3, 2017] Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Montillo begins this compelling account of women track stars in the early days of the Olympics with a gripping set piece detailing a 1931 plane crash in a field outside Chicago. A female passenger declared dead at the scene arrives at the morgue only to have the undertaker discover she is still breathing. Just three years earlier, that woman, Elizabeth Betty Robinson, became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field when she ran the 100-meter dash in 12.2 seconds. In a tightly woven, flowing narrative, Montillo profiles the women who excelled in three Olympics: the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, and the 1936 Games in Berlin. In Berlin, Robinson, recovered from her injuries, claimed another gold in the women's 400-meter relay, upsetting the highly favored Germans. In addition to Robinson, Montillo profiles Helen Stephens, Babe Didrikson, and Stella Walsh, all of whom faced the obstacles that still challenge contemporary athletes: dealing with sudden fame, combating sexism and racism, and facing issues of sexual identity, among them. Just as Laura Hillenbrand, in Unbroken (2014), earned acclaim for resurrecting the life of Louis Zamperini, an overlooked American war hero and Olympian, Montillo deserves praise for sharing with honesty and integrity the remarkable stories of these resilient trailblazers. This is a must-read, certain to inspire a new generation of athletes with its fascinating slice of Olympic and women's sports history.--Barrera, Brenda Copyright 2017 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Montillo (The Wilderness of Ruin) traces the fascinating story of Betty Robinson, an Olympic-track-and-field trailblazer. Montillo is a brilliant storyteller who introduces Robinson in 1931, as she is being driven to a local funeral home, assumed dead, after a devastating plane crash that puts her life-and future Olympic hopes-in jeopardy. As a high school athlete, Robinson came just a tenth of a second short of the U.S. indoor track record. Robinson went on to join the first female track-and-field team to compete in the 1928 Olympics and won gold for the U.S. In telling Robinson's story, Montillo ably traces women's fight for inclusion and equality in competitive sports while unearthing decades-old examples of the biases and challenges women in competitive sports still face to this day (some detractors claimed that the Olympics were creating "'manly' women"; others questioned an athletic woman's gender). Montillo also includes riveting portraits of Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes-the first female African-American runners. Montillo has written an engaging, insightful look at an era in women's sports. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

A frantic dash to catch a train and an eagle-eyed track coach combined to create an unlikely pioneer: Betty Robinson, daughter of an Irish immigrant and an otherwise typical high school student, who had never even tried on a pair of track shoes. Under the guidance of the prescient Coach Price, the teenager ran to gold medal victory in the 1928 Olympics, the first time women were allowed to participate in track and field. Only three years later, Robinson survived a harrowing small plane crash. Her near-miraculous recovery and improbable return to Olympic glory are chronicled with rich historical context by Montillo (The Wilderness of Ruin), including gender issues in sports that are still being debated today. Robinson's life story and important role in breaking down barriers for women has already been optioned for film; this well-balanced biography and history of a groundbreaking female track star recalls a time and an athlete worth celebrating. VERDICT Sports enthusiasts and women's history buffs will be captivated by Robinson and her fellow trailblazers. Montillo's in-depth research and highly accessible style make this a timely and appropriate choice for public and school libraries.-Janet Davis, Darien P.L., CT © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.