Historical Markers
The Penn Relays Historical Marker
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The Penn Relays

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Franklin Field at entrance to track, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
April 29, 1995

Behind the Marker

markerWalter Tewksbury. Alvin Kraenzlein. markerJim Thorpe. Paavo Nurmi. Jackson Scholz. Eric Liddell. Jesse Owens. Roger Bannister. Al Oerter. Don Bragg. John Thomas. Wilma Rudolph. Ron Delaney. Bob Beamon. Wyomia Tyus. Marty Liquori. Edwin Moses. Joan Benoit Samuelson. Marion Jones. Frank Shorter. Justin Gatlin. Lauryn Williams.

Runners crossing the finish line.
Varsity one-mile relay teams competing at Penn Relays College Championship,...
Olympic medalists. World record holders. Athletic legends. And all alumni of the annual Penn Relays Carnival. As is comedian Bill Cosby; the great singer, actor, and activist markerPaul Robeson; and, quite literally, tens of thousands of others for whom competing on the track at Franklin Field would be the highlight of their competitive sporting lives.

There is no other venue in all of sports quite like it. Where else can a sixth-grader–or even a seventy-year-old–take part in the same competition as the swiftest, springiest, and strongest runners, jumpers, and throwers on the planet?

Second only to the Olympics in prestige and public awareness, the Penn Relays is not only the largest and longest-running track meet in the world, it is easily the most democratic as well. Black and white, young and old, boys and girls, men and women, the physically fit and the physically challenged, they all take part. It truly is a carnival, a route to the Olympics for some, the equivalent of a personal Olympics for the vast majority.

Penn gold medalists Nathaniel J. Cartmell, W'08 (#21) and John B. Taylor, V'08 (#23) posed with fellow members of the winning 1600 meter relay team, Philadelphian Melvin Sheppard (#24) and William F. Hamilton (#25)
The University of Pennsylvania's 1600 meter relay team, at the 1908 London Olympics.
Yet, festive as the event always is with its rainbow of school and international colors on the track and in the stands at Franklin Field, the relays' joyful name actually derives from the village of tents erected for athletes to dress in before the current brick-and-mortar stadium was completed in 1921. By the time the carnival designation was made official in 1910, the Penn Relays, already in its sport's spotlight, had barely worked up a sweat.

First staged in 1895, a year before the modern Olympics debuted in Athens, the relays have been run every year since. The idea evolved from an 1893 publicity stunt; to help boost interest in an annual track meet hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, organizers decided to run a relay race for the meet's finale.

Relays had been run before, of course, but not often; they would not become part of the Olympics until 1908. Penn's first mile relay, in which a team of four each ran a quarter mile, proved so popular that despite Penn's loss to Princeton, it was included again on the schedule for 1894, this time with the Quakers victorious.

Franklin Field stadium (as rebuilt in 1922), semi-aerial photograph, game in progress, Penn vs. Cornell, November 25, 1926.
Franklin Field stadium (as rebuilt in 1922), semi-aerial photograph, game in...
The race was such a crowd-pleaser that the university decided to celebrate the opening of the original Franklin Field with a menu of nine relays–all at 4 x 440 yards–four for area high-schoolers and five for college runners, thus establishing the carnival's recipe of mixing preps with collegians.

In its second year, the program added new distances and the participants quadrupled. By the turn of the century, individual sprint, hurdle, and field events filled the bill, too. In 1898, the meet's geographical reach broadened to the Midwest, when the University of Chicago sent a team, and in 1914, the event took on an international flavor with the arrival of a squad from Oxford University in England. And it hasn't stopped growing.

Today, nearly 20,000 athletes from some 250 colleges, 900 high schools, and more than 100 track clubs fill Franklin Field for three days each April to compete in hundreds of individual and relay races, at distances from 100-to 10,000 meters.
Five men pose for a photograph outside of a stadium.
Olympic track and field stars (from left to right) Barney Ewell, Mal Whitfield,...

Still, the glory of the event is not confined just to what goes on between the starter's pistol and the finish line. For all the world records set, all the participants now enshrined in the athletic pantheon, all the high-schoolers and middle-schoolers who can say for the rest of their lives that they competed in the Penn Relays, the carnival has been in the forefront of racially integrated competitions, colorblind from the start. Given the University's Quaker traditions, that may not seem startling, but for an event so old, it is certainly remarkable, and with the kind of national exposure the games have long received, they form a significant link on the chain of events connecting sports to the civil rights movement.

Indeed, in the African-American community, the relays were regularly referred to as "The Negro Olympics" into the 1960s. Just as racial pride swelled black attendance at ballparks 1947, Robinson's first season, it also lured black spectators, from Philadelphia and beyond, to cheer and admire black athletes in Franklin Field.

In the 1950s and 1960s, that pride spilled over into an enormous block party that floated through Philadelphia's black communities on carnival weekends. The weekend was the most anticipated on the calendar, with formal and informal events reinforcing social ties within that community and, with an abundance of out-of-town visitors, beyond it.

By comparison, women were late starters, finally arriving in 1962. Among the first to take the track were reigning Olympic 100-meter champion Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus, on her way to becoming the first to twice win Olympic gold at that distance.
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