Penn Relays: The oldest, the biggest, the best in the nation

The Penn Relays are not only America’s largest amateur track meet and the world’s oldest and largest relay meet. They are also the place where track fans get to see tomorrow’s Olympic stars today.

“At some point in life,” said Penn Relays Director Dave Johnson, “you’ll be able to say [of an Olympic runner], Oh, I saw him before he was an Olympic star at the Relays.”

At the 108th Penn Relays, from April 25 to 27, some of the nation’s—and the world’s—top track athletes will be at the starting line.

Relays participants have won gold medals in every modern (summer) Olympic Games except the 1980 Moscow games, which the United States boycotted. In the most recent Olympics, the 2000 Sydney games, 22 Relays alums won gold medals, either individually or as members of relay teams. And this past February, Vanetta Flowers—the college long jump champion at the 1996 Penn Relays—became the first Relays participant and the first black to win a Winter Olympic gold medal, in the women’s bobsled competition in Salt Lake City.

That’s quite a jump from 1896, in Athens, when the first Relays participant took gold at the first modern Olympics. But then again, today’s Relays are a far cry from the first meet in 1895.

That event featured 72 runners, representing four high schools and four colleges, participating in nine relay events and a collegiate championship. This year’s 108th running will have nearly 23,000 athletes—high school, college, professional and senior—competing in 328 different events, including national high school and collegiate championships and Olympic development races.

“It’s a meet where something is always happening,” said Johnson. “For high school and college athletes, it’s a stepping stone in terms of professional development.” The two groups together account for 90 percent of Relays participants.

The remaining 10 percent include runners 40 and over, keeping themselves in the running in masters’ races, and Olympics hopefuls, honing their skills in Olympic development races, which were added to the Relays calendar in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, to give our athletes more preparation for competition against the Russians.

The Relays’ status as America’s largest amateur track meet goes back to the very first running, held in 1895 to stoke flagging student interest in track and field. That event drew 5,000 spectators, the largest audience for a track meet in Philadelphia up to that time.

“It was the first meet of its kind, and from the outset, it was the biggest,” Johnson said. More than 110,000 spectators attended the 107th Penn Relays last year, including an all-time record 45,000 on Saturday.

The Penn Relays also play an important role in Philadelphia’s cultural life, with Penn Relays weekend one of the high points on the black social calendar, with many parties and gatherings scheduled around the event.

Johnson offered a possible explanation for how this came to be. “This was a major white event that accepted blacks, perhaps unique among sporting events” in the early part of this century, he said. In his memoirs, the late tennis great Arthur Ashe mentioned the Relays as a source of inspiration, and today, it continues to inspire blacks both here and abroad.

As always, the must-see events are on Saturday, including the annual “U.S. vs. the World” Olympic development races and the major college and high school championship races. But there’s plenty of action all the time, from the opening event at 10 a.m. Thursday through the last race at 6 p.m. Saturday.

General admission tickets are $12 on Thursday and Friday and $18 on Saturday. Reserved seats for Saturday’s events run from $27 to $37. For tickets and information, call 215-898-6151.

Originally published on April 11, 2002