The Penn Relays at Franklin field at the University of Pennsylvania, one can call the equivalent of Reggae Sunsplash, or Usain Bolt and Jamaicans at the Olympics, or the bi annual World Athletic Championships, truth be told it feels more like Jamaica’s annual ISSA Boys and Girls Champs Kingston, Jamaica which, by the way was inaugurated in 1910. The Penn Relays festival has become, “the world’s largest relay carnival” according to the UPEN organizers, America’s largest amateur track meet. But was this venerable Franklin Field event always this way? No, it wasn’t.
When the first staging of the event took place in 1895 which was designed to stoke flagging student interest in track and field, it drew 5,000 spectators, the largest audience for a track meet in Philadelphia up to that time. Today the Penn Relays boasts athletes from 11 foreign countries, elite athletes from universities and colleges and professional athletes. There are 985 US high schools represented by thousands of high school athletes from 38 states across America and the Caribbean. The 3 days event crowd attendance draws more than 100,000. Add food from the Jamaica, fun, and a sea of Black Gold and Green Jamaican flags plus souvenir stands this three day carnival celebration of track and fields has made Penn Relays become one of the most exciting and important international track and field event.
The Jamaican high school student athletes’ first participation in the Penn Relays events dates back to 1964. When small number of Jamaican athletes and their Diaspora supporters brought with them and a competitive drive to match and beat their better trained American counter parts and the excitement of their patriotic Jamaican celebratory spirit.
The presence of Jamaicans and their athletes at Penn relays, which serves as one of the largest gathering of the Caribbean community, accounts for the major transformation of the 3 day event. Today Jamaicans religiously attend ‘Penns’ by the thousands. Since 1964 approximately 25 to 35% of patrons, attending the meet are of Jamaican descent, many live in the Diaspora,
The Jamaican teams are always competitive creating exciting rivalries with U.S. athletes. The annual highlight is Jamaica-US showdowns in the 100 and 200 men and women meters sprints, the relays (4×100 and 4×400). The international relays with Olympic athletes are called, “USA vs. the World.” The college and high school finals are called, “Championship of America.”
The impact of Jamaican track and field athletes at Pen relays is demonstrated on many levels. The estimated 49,000 Jamaican fans that attended the 2012 staging of the Penn Relays included Jamaican Prime Minister; Portia Simpson-Miller. The PM presented the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr Amy Guttmann, with a Jamaican flag as part of Jamaica’s 50th year of Independence celebration. Meet officials announced that in 2013 the Jamaica’s flag will permanently fly above the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field with other official banners. The PM described the gesture as “a great tribute to the country, our athletes and Jamaicans the world over.” Dr.Gutmann recognized the impact Jamaicans have had on the high caliber of Penn Relays and acknowledged that Jamaica’s participation… has greatly influenced the yearly attendance.
Two of the three day event is now nationally televised in the US. Chas Dorman, a spokesman at Penn. noted that he received more than 700 media requests — twice the normal amount — including writers from Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and The New York Times in 2010 when Usain Bolt anchored the 4×100 relay.
The New York-based Team Jamaica Bickle hospitality initiative began by Jamaican national Irwin Clare solely to assist Jamaica athletes now serve athletes from Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This move has attracted more sports fans, parents and supporters with connection to those Caribbean nations. New York based ‘Dollar’ Vans shuttle athletes from New York’s JFK airport to Philadelphia, as cost saving measure, while Jamaican-owned restaurants in New York and Philly like Genesis1, Henrika’s, The Door, Silver Krust, Ron’s Caribbean Cuisine, Calabash, K&G’s and Morgan’s supply hundreds of dinner to the athletes. However, New York-based frozen food manufacturer Caribbean Food Delights CEO, Mr. Vincent Ho-Sang and his wife Jeanette transport a full kitchen for the team to the event, cooking and serving approximately 3,000 meals daily.
Mr. Andrew Batchelor, from Coalition of Jamaica sums up the true Jamaican spirit at work
“As Jamaicans, it is our utmost responsibility to uphold and demonstrate the positive side of our people and our culture, and as a group we strive to show the level of our abilities worldwide, and will carry this responsibility proudly. We are here to make a difference.”
Another important development saw Jamaica spear heading a meeting Consulate Generals Antigua-Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, and St. Lucia and The Penn Relay Carnival and the Caribbean Consular Corps (CARICOM) in an attempt to deepened the already exists bond that between the University of Pennsylvania and the regional body.
Because of the ever increasing presence of Caribbean national the financial impact of Penn Relays is not lost to business here in the USA and in the Caribbean. Jamaican owned business like New York-based frozen food manufacturer Caribbean Food Delights, – sign shared the infield of the stadium along with Nike, Visa, BMW, Golden Krust, and Caribbean giant Grace Foods have a visible presence at the Penn carnival. Caribbean and, Telecom giant Digicel make their presence felt and seek to extend their brand name and expand their market share by being a sponsor at the Penn Relay Carnival.
Another measure of how the economic boost Caribbean athletes give to the Penn Relays annually can be seen by the pages one, two and three of event program for the prestigious, nationally-televised track and field meet held in Philadelphia. The program’s cover photo featured fleet-footed Olympic-caliber runners from the Bahamas dueling with a USA team in last year’s USA vs. The World 4×400 relay race.
Caribbean giant Grace Foods, occupies page two with it’s a full-page color ad for coconut water, the “Ultimate Natural Hydration. Grace is also listed on page three with Penn Relays’ participating sponsors.
About the Author
Stan Evan Smith is the Host of State of Affairs on The Keys Blog Talk Radio. (www.thekeys107network.com) send comments to Email: [email protected]
Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator: Jamaicans.com (FL) Contributing writer: YUSH .com (UK). Contributing Editor: Everybody’s Magazine (NYC) sends comments to Email: [email protected]