Review of Fire on the Track

Montillo, Roseanne. Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women. New York: Crown, 2017. Pp. 285. 15 photos & illustrations, chapter notes and index. $27.00 hardcover.

Reviewed by Robert Pruter

Author Roseanne Montillo does not have an academic sport history background, but rather a MFA degree in creative writing, a credential that is most evident in this exquisitely written book. The author uses this biography of Betty Robinson to frame a larger story in the title beyond the colon, with career biographies also on Babe Didrikson, Stella Walsh, and Helen Stephens. Robinson is the prime focus with a story that has all the elements of a Hollywood movie script. Robinson at the beginning of the 1928 Olympic year was s 16-year old schoolgirl who had never run in an organized track meet. She was not even aware that they existed for girls.

Robinson was discovered in February 1928 by her high school biology teacher and assistant boys track coach at Thornton High, when he looked down from the station platform as the incoming train approached and saw Robinson considerably far away racing to catch the train, in which she had to run up a stairway. As an experienced track coach, he knew she had no chance, and entered the train, sat down, and opened his newspaper. A few moments later Robinson arrived at the empty seat next to him as the train pulled out of the station. He was stunned and the upshot of the meeting was he asked to time her the next day.

The next day, he timed her, and like in a Hollywood movie discovered her time for the 50 yard was an astonishing tenth of a second short of the world’s indoor record. The Olympics were only about six months away, and the coach knew she had the potential to be an Olympic medal winner, with track shoes, instruction and training in racing fundamentals. He had to rush her training, and in March put her in her first organized meet, the Bankers indoor meet. Entered in the 60 yard, Robinson was beaten by Helen Filkey, one of the world’s best sprinters and hurdlers and member of the Illinois Women’s Athletic Club (IWAC). Filkey tied the world’s record in the event, but what was stunning about the race is that Robinson pushed Filkey to the record in a very close race. The IWAC immediately scooped her up, and thereafter she trained at the IWAC on Chicago’s near north side. A 1929 video exists that shows both of these runners at their best.

Robinson’s second race of her career had her winning a first place medal in June, at the Central AAU meet, beating Filkey in the 100 meter in a wind-aided world record time. This qualified her to compete in New Jersey in July at the Olympic Games trials and national championship, where in only her third meet, she qualified with a second place in the 100-meters, In only her fourth meet at the Olympic Games in August, she upset veteran runners to win the 100 in world record time, notably Fanny Rosenfeld in the final heat. She went from a complete unknown to become the queen of American track and field in a remarkably short time.

Robinson’s subsequent career followed the Hollywood script of disaster and redemption. At the top of her game in June 1931, she went up in a private plane that crashed, and is taken to the mortuary presumed dead, where the mortician discovered a spark of life in her. Doctors told her she would never run again, maybe never walk again. But through hard and long fought perseverance, she was able to run again, and in the 1936 Olympics, where on the USA relay team she won a gold medal. The book ends with Robinson’s 1936 Olympic triumph.

That the book reads like a Hollywood movie story is most evident once one learns that the screen rights on her book had already been sold to DreamWorks before it had been published.[1] Possibly Montillo gilded the lily a bit in building her story as a perfect Hollywood script. In Robinson’s first timed race with her high school biology teacher, Montillo says the result was only one-tenth off the world’s indoor record. In an interview with Louise Mead Tricard in 1992, Robinson said, the time wasn’t accurate.”[2] In Joe Gergen’s The First Lady of Olympic Track (2014), the author does not mention the time, but both Tricard and Gergen suggest the time was impressive enough for the coach to get going in preparing Robinson for the Olympics.[3]

The First Lady of Olympic Track, by veteran sports journalist Joe Gergen, was the first book on Robinson, and the Montillo book ranks as the second. Both are acceptable and reliable enough for a sport historian, and both write in a contextualized manner that a historian would require in such a book. For example, both admirably cover Alice Milliet’s work in conducting international track and field meets for women in pushing the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to add women’s track and field events to the Olympics, thus adding the context by which Robinson had the opportunity to shine on the international stage in a spectacular manner. But Montillo has the edge in contextualization, showing the development of other woman track and field competitors at each stage of Robinson’s career. Her book is not animated by a theory or thesis as one would expect in a popular history work.

What stands out about Montillo’s findings, however, in her four largest profiles–Robinson, Didrikson, Walsh, Stephens–is that all four rose in quick fashion to the top of the track and field world, and not after several years of paying one’s dues in the trenches, practicing and training under professional supervision. All four were seemingly born with great athletic ability, who could be turned into world champions after only a few months of training. Raises the question whether only natural athletes can rise to the elite of athletic success.

Montillo is obviously a careful researcher, but two errors slightly mar her riveting story. In creating the verisimilitude for the Robinson train-chasing scene that occurred in late February, she has the coach musing about students talking about the football game being canceled because of the snow. There were no football games in February, the author may have read about a basketball game being canceled, and mentally slipped and wrote “football.” In her fine Tidye Pickett profile she has her belonging to the “Chicago Park District’s South Track Team,” No such animal. Pickett belonged to the South Parks District, and after that district and others joined together to form an all-Chicago district in 1933, she belonged to the Chicago Park District.”

Montillo has done deep research for her stories, archival collections not only on her four principal subjects but also on many of the minor subjects, from more than 20 university, local libraries, and historical societies nationwide. She also obtained much personal information from communications with her subjects relatives. Her citations show perhaps an inordinate use of email correspondence with descendents of her subjects. In terms of academic apparatus, Montillo, as with almost all trade books, does not use footnote style (using instead source summaries for each relevant subject needing citation). In any case, where she drew her information is clear for the historian.

Fire on the Track is a great addition to any sport historian’s library, adding to the meager library on track and field, particularly women’s track and field. I can hardly wait until the movie comes out (if ever, as we all know that scripts can end up in limbo forever in movie land).

Robert Pruter is a recently retired reference and government documents librarian from Lewis University, Romeoville, Illinois. He has an MA in history degree from Roosevelt University, and has written extensively on high school and amateur sports, contributing entries to a number of reference books and articles and reviews to a variety of journals. His The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control, 1880-1930 was published by the Syracuse University Press in 2013.

Notes:


[1] John Keilman, “Betty Robinson, “The Greatest Chicago Olympian You’ve Never Heard of,” Chicago Tribune, 18 August 2016.
[2] Louise Mead Tricard, American Women’s Track and Field: A History, 1895 through 1980 (Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 1996), p. 138.
[3] Joe Gergen, The First Lady of Olympic Track and Field: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014), p. 10.

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