Book Review: ‘Fire on the Track’

Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women, by Roseanne Montillo, tells the story of female sprinters in the 1920s and 1930s, when women were first permitted to compete in Olympic track events. Contrary to the title, it is not a biography of Betty Robinson (who won the gold medal in the 100m at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam) although her story is the main focus.

“Fire on the Track” tells Robinson’s story alongside those of other star woman runners of the era, such as Babe Didrickson, Stella Walsh and Helen Stephens. Montillo chronicles the women’s childhoods, how they began their track careers, and the challenges they faced during an era when women’s participation in competitive sports was controversial.

I was really excited about this book. I love narrative non-fiction, especially on sports-related topics. My regret is that Montillo’s efforts to tell the stories of a number of different women means I didn’t get to know any of them well.

Montillo devotes the most detail to title character Betty Robinson’s story: amazingly, after winning the gold in 1928, Robinson almost died in a plane crash. Against the odds, she recovered in time to compete again at the 1936 Olympics.

The stories of the other pioneering athletes, told alongside Robinson’s, are fascinating. I would gladly read a full-length biography of Stella Walsh, a Polish immigrant who was born intersex and faced endless gossip about her gender, or Helen Stephens, a closeted lesbian whose encounter with Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics culminated in him squeezing her bottom and inviting her to spend the weekend with him.

Montillo mentions the discrimination faced by two African-American members of the team, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes, but it feels glossed-over. All of these women are compelling, but the author gives none of them the attention they deserve. By giving equal weight to the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Olympics, the book feels scattered, without any central event to focus the story.

The book does have interesting components. Montillo’s account of the controversy over women’s participation in track reveals how radically American sports culture has changed in the last 90 years — and yet, how certain themes remain. While individual women were celebrated by their communities for winning medals in those early Olympics, they were also frequently derided as too masculine or even accused of secretly BEING men. Such threads have surprising parallels to today’s tense discussions about gender in women’s track.

This book also added context to certain events that are well-known (at least among track enthusiasts). For example, when several women collapsed after the 800m final in the 1928 Olympics, officials famously declared the event too taxing for women and removed it, along with the 400m (until 1960, the longest event contested for women was the 200m). Less known is that the race took place on an oppressively hot and humid day, and several competitors in the men’s 800m final also collapsed. Officials’ alarmist response stemmed solely from their preconceptions about women’s “delicate” constitutions.

Unfortunately, many sections of this book simply read as a quick summary of events, with little effort to engage the reader. Pages go by without any quotations at all (as a historian, this also made me wonder – where is the author getting this information? Montillo has a “sources” section at the end, but it’s not comprehensive). Sports have built-in narrative tension, but I never found myself engaged enough to feel invested in the outcome of any races she describes.

I am a museum curator, a former competitive high school and college runner, and a track nerd. I've struggled with chronic injury throughout my career and hope to shed light on the physical and mental challenges of being frequently injured. I live in the Washington, DC, area with my fiancé and black lab mix.

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