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History of the Penn Relays

The first Penn Relays was a smash success. Held on April 21, 1895,  in conjunction with the University’s Spring Handicap Track and Field Games, the meet, now the longest uninterrupted collegiate track meet in the country, was a greater success than hoped for, drawing an attendance of approximately 5,000, the largest track and field crowd to that time in Philadelphia.  At the dawn of the 20th century, track and field in the United States was centered around the three large eastern cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, so it is evident that in addition to being the largest track crowd in Philadelphia, it was immediately one of the largest ever in America.

 

The pre-history of the Penn Relays, and the history of relay running as sport, began in 1893 at the University of Pennsylvania.  While there are earlier examples of relay races having been run, nowhere else did the concept take hold and flourish.  In fact, the history of relay racing cannot be told without linking it to the Penn Relay Carnival.

 

When the University Track Committee, chaired by Frank B. Ellis ‘93, looked for ways of adding interest to their 1893 spring handicap meet, they struck on the idea of a relay, four men each running a quarter mile in succession.  The idea created enough interest that a team from Princeton was invited to contest the event.  Held at the end of the meet on May 12, the Princeton team of J.A. Chapman, George McCampbell, Isaac Brokow and Theodore Turner pulled away in the homestretch to beat Penn by eight yards with a time of 3:34.0.

 

The following year Penn exacted its revenge against the Princeton team on the University Field track, located at 37th and Spruce Streets, where the Quad Dormitory is now.  Interest in the first two years’ races was such that the committee decided to sponsor a relay meet in 1895 with hopes of reviving sagging interest in Penn track.  The first Penn Relays also served as the dedication for Franklin Field, built on the same ground it occupies today, but under a different guise.  The only grandstand at the time was a wooden single-tiered bleacher on the South side of the field, along what is now the sprint straightaway.

 

The facilities were rudimentary, even for the period, but the potential for one of the best athletic facilities in the country existed.  The track, which partially surrounded a combination baseball and football field, was not yet completed.  The top layer of cinders had not arrived in time, leaving the surface a rough bed of clinkers.  Permanent dressing facilities were also lacking, but tents were set up around the perimeter of the track, and were used yearly until Weightman Hall was built in 1904.

 

The festive atmosphere provided by the tent camp was responsible for the term “Carnival,” which was officially adopted as part of the meet’s name in 1910.  Today, the carnival atmosphere still exists, both inside Franklin Field and the surrounding Carnival Village, and outside on the nearby streets.

 

The first year’s schedule included nine relay events, four for high schools and prep schools, four for colleges, and the college championship.  All were held at 4x440 yards, what became the classic mile relay.  In each race there were but two teams, and Harvard defeated Penn with at time of 3:34 2/5 to win the first Carnival championship.  The other teams competing in the inaugural meet were Cornell, Columbia, Lafayette, Lehigh, Rutgers, Swarthmore, College of the City of New York and New York University among the colleges, and Central High School of Philadelphia, Central Manual Training of Philadelphia, Haverford School, Cheltenham Military Academy, Germantown Academy, William Penn Charter, Episcopal Academy and DeLancey School among the high schools and prep schools.

 

Interest in the meet was such that entries for the 1896 Carnival quadrupled, requiring the establishment of a time schedule.  From that year’s program comes the following: “Events will be run promptly at the time indicated on the program, and if the teams and contestants are not at the scratch, the race will be started without them.”  Some things never change.

 

A 5-Mile relay was added in 1896, thereafter becoming the 4-Mile Relay, and in 1897 a 2-Mile Relay was added.  The scope of the Relays broadened in 1898, as the University of Chicago became the first midwestern school to attend.  In the following two years, college events not covered by the relays were added: the two sprints, 100 yards and 220 yards; the 120-yard hurdles; and the commonly contested field events of the day, the high jump, pole vault, long jump, shot put and hammer throw.

 

In the fall of 1899, temporary bleachers were constructed on the North and West sides for the Army-Navy football game.  The decision to play this game annually in Philadelphia was an important factor in the plan to erect a permanent brick horseshoe-shaped grandstand with a new gymnasium at the open end.  Completed in the fall of 1903, the new Franklin Field became the first permanent college stadium in the country and the first of the horseshoe design.  Weightman Hall was completed in 1904, and the exterior exists today much as it did then.

 

The Relay Racing Code was adopted in 1910 by the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A).  The code allowed a 20-foot zone in front of the starting line, in which a touch-off could be made.  Before this, there had been neither batons nor passing zones.  The incoming runner had been required to touch the next, who was required to hold his mark at the starting line.  The baton and 20-meter exchange zone, 10 meters on either side of the starting line, were introduced internationally in time for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, and 1913 saw the first use of the baton at Penn. 

 

Expansion marked the first two decades of the Carnival, and in 1911, ten years before the first NCAA championship meet, each college and high school championship event became known as the “Championship of America.”  Until the NCAA conducted its first national championship track and field meet in 1921, the Penn Relays was generally recognized as the only meet which brought together contestants from every part of the country.

 

The Relays became in international affair in 1914, when a team from Oxford University in England won the 4-Mile Relay.  The following year saw the advent of the two-day meet and the addition of the sprint medley and distance medley relays.

           

In 1920, Oxford and Cambridge Universities were invited to send a combined team after World War I had depleted the athletic reserves of the two schools.  The interest created drew the first Relays crowd of more than 30,000 with another 5,000 turned away. It was the largest crowd ever at the stadium with the exception of the 1919 Penn-Pitt football game, and it was responsible for literally bringing the house down.

 

With football and the Carnival well-established as spectator events, the old stadium was demolished in the late spring of 1921, and a new structure of brick and mortar, today’s lower deck, was usable by the following autumn.  The new design was such that a second deck could be added, as it was in the fall of 1925.

 

The design for the Penn Relays plaque and medal was executed by Dr. R. Tait McKenzie in time for the 1925 meet.  It shows Benjamin Franklin, founder of the University, seated in a chair modeled from his library chair, holding a laurel sprig in his left hand.  He greets four runners, shaking the hand of the first, while the last holds a baton.  Posing for the medal were former Penn athletes Larry Brown, Louis Madeira, George Orton and Ted Meredith.  At the bottom of the relief is a lightning bolt, symbolic of Franklin’s explorations in the nature of electricity.

 

H. Jamison Swarts became the manager (the title of “Director” did not exist until 1956) of the Relays in 1926, succeeding Orton, who had followed Ellis.  This was also the year that the last of the men’s championship relays was added, the shuttle hurdles, at the suggestion of teams from England, where the event had been contested.  This came four years after the addition of the 440-yard Relay and the 880-yard Relay.  Equally important, however, was the installation of a loudspeaker, which replaced the use of megaphones on the part of the announcers.  It was a great advancement in terms of informing the spectators, and complemented the scoreboard, an earlier innovation of the Penn Relays.

 

The period under Swarts, which ended with his departure following the 1950 Carnival, was one of gradual improvement of a well-functioning system, and one which saw participation progress steadily.  His 25-year term was one which saw the Carnival proceed while responding to the national crises of the Great Depression and World War II.

 

In response to a survey of spectators, the 440- and 880-yard Relays were altered in 1930 so that they consisted of running complete laps.  Before this time, the two sprint relays had started in the straightaway chute, which began on the sprint straight near 33rd Street, and finished in what is now the paddock at the northwest corner of the stadium.

 

In 1951, at the urging of Ken Doherty, the Relays began a new push to further increase the number of participants and heighten spectator interest.  Doherty oversaw the widening of the track to the inside, which added six lanes.  These were used for the sprints, and together with the existing track eventually allowed for more competitors in the sprint relays.  In addition, the inner six lanes provided better viewing from the stands as well as a better sprint surface because it was not continually chewed up by heavy action.

 

With the northwest corner no longer used as a finish chute, this area was turned into the paddock, the clerking area.  Moving the athletes off the infield near the first turn improved spectator sightlines and helped the meet run with greater efficiency, which in turn allowed for greater numbers of athletes.  In 1956, Doherty’s first with the title of Director, several events for post-collegiate athletes were added, the series of events which became known as the Olympic Development events.

 

During the 1950s the schedule was altered, placing more of the major events in a concentrated time period on Saturday afternoon for the greater enjoyment of spectators.  And in 1956, Carnival attendance went over 35,000 for the first time.  By now, competing athletes numbered 4,000.  Attendance reached an all-time high in 1958 with a crowd of 43,618.

 

Women’s events first began at the Relays with a 100-yard dash in 1962.  The next year saw the first women’s Olympic Development relay.  High school events took two major turns in 1964: the girls’ 440-yard Relay was inaugurated, and Jamaican high schools first came to the Carnival.

 

The next leap forward was the installation of the synthetic track in time for the 1967 meet.  No longer were performances hindered by the abysmal condition of the overused track, nor were they so severely affected by poor weather.  It also allowed use of the outer track for sprint events, and more participants were able to be included.  The first year of the new track also saw the inclusion of championship races for IC4A schools.  The IC4A championships helped to bring back colleges which had defected when the Carnival became still more competitive by attracting more of the top track powers from farther afield.

 

In 1971, Jim Tuppeny succeeded Doherty as director, and he too expanded the program.  A marathon was added in 1973, and distance races were added the following year and run on Thursday night, following the second day of the decathlon.

 

The Carnival switched to a metric orientation in 1976, yard distances being abandoned in all events but the 4x120 yard shuttle hurdles and the mile run.  Automatic timing was first used in 1977.

 

The next step was the inclusion of a wide spectrum of women’s events in 1978.  This turned the Carnival into a three-day meet, and together with the marathon and subsequent 20km road race, accounts for much of the recent expansion in numbers of participants.

 

Tim Baker succeeded Tuppeny before the 1988 Carnival and instituted a marked shift in fiscal policy.  Until Baker, the Relays had survived financially on revenues provided by the gate, entries and program sales.  In 1988, the Carnival moved toward corporate sponsorship and individual patronage.

 

The largest portion of the monies generated from sponsorships is used to help defray the expenses of the many college teams which annually attend the Relays.  The number of schools from distant parts of the United States made a dramatic rise under Baker, and interest in the Relays rose as well, with Saturday crowds averaging 40,000 for the eight years of Baker’s tenure.  The scope of the meet also increased, with college women’s and high school girls’ championships having been brought to parity with the championships offered their male counterparts, and the number of contestants also increased.

 

Dave Johnson succeeded Baker as Relays Director before the 1996 Carnival.  In the years since, the Relays has seen a much greater reliance on computers and electroic communications, the introduction of the Carnival Village, a continually greater presence among high schools from around the country, the beginning of the USA versus the World relays, and steadily increasing crowds.  Record attendance records were reached in 2006 with more than 113,00 spectators for the three days, including more than 49,000 on Saturday.  Three day figures have averaged 104,000 since 1996.

 

This year there will be more than 22,000 entries, about half of whom will be high schoolers, and the three-day attendance is likely to top 110,000 for the third year in a row.  Saturday attendance has averaged 48,000 for the last six years, and makes the meet the best attended track event in the United States each year, and one of the best attended in the world.

 

An endowment of the Relays Directorship in 2006 created the Frank Dolson Director of Penn Relays, with Johnson as the first holder of the chair.

 

Through 116 editions of the meet, more athletes have run at the Penn Relays than at any single meet in the world.  More spectators have watched the meet than any in the world except the Olympics and World Championships.  And the Penn Relay Carnival remains the same whirlwind of activity that has always excited fans young and old.

 

 

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