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At Long Last, Relays Season is Back - Part One


This is the first of a two-part series by contributor Tom Surber on the Penn and Drake Relays.


For many individuals, the spring season brings the rebirth of nature and reason to celebrate the conclusion of another long and brutal winter. But for numerous track and field fans in the United States, it means the greatest time of the year has finally arrived: Relays Season!

Throughout the nation, long-standing and highly-entertaining annual meets showcasing relay races above all else have brought track and field fans tremendous excitement and the opportunity to see many of the world’s greatest athletes compete in person.


The Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California, the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays in Austin, Texas, the Pepsi Florida Relays, in Gainesville, Florida, the Kansas Relays, in Lawrence, Kansas, and the Oregon Relays in Eugene, Oregon, are just a few of the fantastic and highly-acclaimed relay-centric meets available for fans to attend.


However, many knowledgeable fans lead their relays bucket lists with two of the most storied events of their kind: the Penn Relays Carnival in Philadelphia, and the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa.

The inception of great relays events in the U.S. occurred with the inaugural Penn Relays on April 21, 1895. The event was a huge success, drawing an audience of approximately 5,000 spectators, which was the largest track and field crowd ever recorded up to that time. While other similar events were being held in those days, it was the relay event hosted by the University of Pennsylvania that spawned the longest uninterrupted collegiate track meet in the country, the Penn Relays Carnival.


The event continued to grow in stature as the nation’s only meet to bring athletes together from around the country, and in 1911 each college and high school championship event contested at the Penn Relays became known as the “Championship of America,” a decade before the NCAA staged its first national championship in 1921.


International athletes first competed at the Penn Relays in 1914 when the 4-mile relay was won by a team from Oxford University in England. One year later, the meet was expanded to a two-day event that included sprint medley and distance medley relays for the first time.


The lower deck of the Penn Relays legendary home, Franklin Field, was constructed in 1921, with the upper deck added in the fall of 1925. More athletes have competed at the Penn Relays at Franklin Field than any other single meet in the world, and spectators have watched the Penn Relays more than any other meet except the Olympics and World Championships.


The 2016 Penn Relays Carnival -- scheduled for April 28-30 -- will feature more than 15,000 student-athletes from high schools and colleges around the nation, where more than 110,000 fans annually attend the three-day event, with 45,000 on hand for the final day of competition. Those fans receive incredible value for their entertainment dollar as the Penn Relays prides itself on conducting an average of one race every five minutes over its 33 hours of competition.


The 122nd Penn Relays will again feature the USA vs. The World series pitting many of the nation’s Olympic and World Championship-caliber athletes in relay competition against athletes from around the globe. During its run that began in 2000, great athletes competing in USA vs. The World relay races have included Michael Johnson, Maurice Greene, Gail Devers, Allyson Felix, Sanya Richards-Ross and Usain Bolt among many others.


“We’ve had elite athletes here for a while, but the fact is that until you put national team jerseys on people, those athletes weren’t eliciting that big of a response,” said Dave Johnson, Penn Relays director since 1996. “But the moment you put on a national team uniform and you’ve got a good rivalry, particularly between Jamaica and the U.S., then it gets everybody hopping and that changed the whole nature of those events.”


The Penn Relays is special for a variety of reasons, but it’s the atmosphere and sound inside Franklin Field that make this amazing relay carnival one of the world’s most unique sporting events.


“Back in ’94 at the time of our 100th running, I was doing a lot of interviews in advance and it finally dawned on me what the real distinction of Penn Relays is -- and it’s the noise,” Johnson said. “The noise in that stadium is incredible and it’s uncontrollable. It just goes and goes and goes with each race. It rises and falls with the closeness of a race, and it doesn’t matter how slow the teams might be running, if it’s close it’s going to get the crowd going.”


As exciting as the action is on the track during the three days of competition, it’s the reality that the Penn Relays brings so many people together that gives it the feel of a giant family get together.


“The fact that it’s reunion weekend for so many people, and you get together in one place with all sorts of friends from all around the world,” Johnson said. “You run into them, you plan to run into some of them. The social calendar is well set, although nobody could tell you all of it. There’s just so much of it and everybody has something going on.”


On April 29, 1961, a new television sports anthology program hit the airwaves for the first time entitled “ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport,” as its famous introduction stated -- the wildly popular show gave its American viewers the opportunity to see familiar sports, and sports that many of its viewers had never even imagined.


The landmark show lasted for 37 seasons with its first episode featuring legendary host Jim McKay at Franklin Field to host live coverage of the 1961 Penn Relays, with occasional switches to Jim Simpson in Des Moines with live coverage of the Drake Relays.


For those who have relished the drama and excitement of relays season through the years, the fact that such an iconic program aired the Penn Relays and Drake Relays on its inaugural telecast comes as no surprise. When you think about it, what could have been better?


Don’t miss USA vs. the World at Penn Relays Carnival, Saturday, April 30 from 12:30-3 p.m. ET on NBCSN.


For more on the relays, check back for part two of the Relays Season feature on Tuesday, April 26.


Contributed by Tom Surber


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