Justin Gatlin from USA Blue crosses the finish line in first place in the Men’s 4x100 vs. the World at the 2006 Penn Relays.MCT PHOTO
PHILADELPHIA — What goes on at the Penn Relays outside the stadium is about as entertaining as the fast finishes and long leaps contested at the famed track and field meet.
Every April, the quiet Penn campus holds supersized pep rallies for the high schools, colleges, NCAA champions and Olympians in the sport’s oldest relay event. The streets around Franklin Field are clogged with revelers singing their school’s fight song, sampling the jerk chicken at the mostly Jamaican-spiced food stands, or dancing to Bob Marley and reggae music.
Sometimes, it’s almost as loud on the street as it is in the packed stands.
“The real identifying aspect of the Penn Relays is the noise level,” said meet director Dave Johnson.
Few amateur events are as boisterous as the Penn Relays.
While track and field’s popularity is nowhere as strong as it is during Olympic years, the Penn Relays rarely suffer for lack of marquee names, strong crowds and exciting meets.
Last year, the meet had a record Friday crowd of nearly 40,000 fans, then followed it up with almost 50,000 the next day for the “U.S.A. vs. the World” meet. This year, Johnson hopes the 113th Penn Relays match those numbers, even with rain and a gloomy sky in the forecast for the three-day event.
While Saturday’s “USA vs. the World” event draws the largest crowds and national TV exposure, the heart of the Penn Relays is high school and college events on Thursday and Friday. Most of those athletes will never again run in a stadium like Franklin Field or in front of as many fans, giving them a thrill they won’t soon forget — and a gold watch if they win.
“People who follow the pro side of the sport or the collegiate side might say that track is in trouble, but on the high school level it clearly is not in trouble,” Johnson said.
Jamaican fans normally fill a good portion of the stadium — especially on Saturday for the World meet — waving flags, chanting for their country and cooking their favorite foods. Franklin Field, which opened in 1895 for the first running of the Penn Relays and is the former home of the Philadelphia Eagles, is never as loud as before the gun goes off for those international meets. Chants of “U.S.A.! and “Ja-mai-ca!” fill the air, and Jamaican fans burst into a frenzy two years ago when a Jamaican team beat Team USA in one of the all-star events.
“What they’ve really done is change the flavor,” Johnson said. “It’s become a Jamaican homecoming in many ways.”
In recent years, Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Asafa Powell all have raced at the historic meet. On Saturday, world champions Lauryn Williams, Allyson Felix and Bershawn Jackson are scheduled to run.
“It’s high schools. That’s the first priority,” Johnson said. “What has driven the increase in popularity in recent years is certainly the pros.”