At Penn Relays, It’s About The Vibe
3:02 PM EDT on April 28, 2023
PHILADELPHIA—Franklin Field is huge because Penn football was once huge. The program claims seven national titles; the NCAA acknowledges four. They regularly outspent and out-recruited other elite Northeast U.S. schools back to the 1890s. In 1916, Penn and some Philadelphia officials pitched building the largest stadium in the world, as well as a Greek theater (size compared to the Theatre of Dionysus unknown) and a stop for the stadium on the Pennsylvania Railroad. This was a bit of oneupmanship, as the Army-Navy game was moving to the larger Polo Grounds in New York. The project never got off the ground. But the school brought back Army-Navy by reconstructing Franklin Field in the 1920s, adding a second deck. They continued to pack in the fans, too. In 1928 78,000 fans saw a Penn-Cornell game.
Penn is no longer a football power, and hasn’t been since school president Thomas Gates forced coaches to also teach in 1931. That helped harm Penn’s prowess in recruiting; the whole Ivy League milieu was codified in the “Ivy Group” agreement in the 1950s. Penn was never a football power again. Home games drew an average of 10,013 fans in 2000, which was my freshman year at Penn. Attendance has plummeted further since. This season Penn averaged 6,854 fans.
Once a year, though, the stadium is undeniably bumping. It is still not full, but it is very much a scene. This weekend is Penn Relays, a track meet that has been running since 1895, with the exception of COVID cancelations in 2020 and 2021. The word “Carnival” was attached to the meet's name in 1910 due to the atmosphere that surrounded it. Five thousand watched the first relays; now about 22,000 athletes compete in track and field events over the three days. Attendance can top 100,000 over the three days. Usain Bolt drew 54,310 on the final day in 2010.
It was not Bolt’s first time at Relays. The competitors range, as Penn says, “from 8 to 80.” Somehow, that bit of throwback marketing language is actually underselling the reality of the event. Last year, Lester Wright set the record for 100 year olds in 100 meter dash with a time of 26.34. Bolt first showed up running for William Knibb High School of Jamaica in 2007.
At least a quarter of the attendees are of Jamaican descent. Jamaicans.com called it “one of the largest gathering of the Caribbean community.” A group, Team Jamaica Bickle, helps support the 650 Caribbean athletes at the meet. Jamaican runners routinely win 4x100 high school, college and pro events. The meet has changed, its fortunes waxing and waning over time. It is more professional now, and much more highly organized. “I also recall circumstances where people slept in their automobiles,” Alonzo Kittrels wrote in The Philadelphia Tribune last year. “They did not seem to mind as the time spent at the Penn Relays and the time spent partying, left little time for sleep.” There are still pro events, although Nike is no longer sponsoring “USA vs. The World” Olympic-level races like the one Bolt dazzled in. More than any particular runner or race, it's the sheer size of the event, and the stadium, make it a draw. All the young runners bring a real energy to the event.
I love going to Penn Relays, but any meet with 22,000 runners is inevitably going to drag. But there’s a beauty in the experience even when it’s dull. You can be bored, getting ready to leave, when a close race—generally accompanied by Jamaicans yelling “whooooooop, whooooooop, whooooooop”—brings you to your feet. It grows and grows, sloshing around and over the edges, and the event somehow works despite how overstuffed it is.
I like to watch a track meet near the pole vault, but any field event will do. I move around. Sometimes I go into the upper deck to view the whole scene. The crowd, the athletes, the venue all do it for me. Sit around enough and the experience might turn transcendent. I like watching track. But I go to Penn Relays every year because of the experience. The stadium is full, the fans boisterous. The winners are jubilant. Some losers are sad, but as a wise prophet once said: Heartbreak feels good in a place like this. Penn Relays is my movie theater.