Updated: May 3
I tapped into the Yaawd Media page of my Facebook account on my cell phone just now and was greeted with the screaming response to a post that I had made a few days ago which read “Penn Relays has become a bad habit that we need to BRUCK.” The response was posted by one my friends on the social media platform and was one of many which called for an end to the annual pilgrimage of secondary schoolers and their coaching delegations to the Penn Relays, now completing its 127th year at Franklin field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For the record, this is the oldest and longest running Track and Field competition in the United States of America and has been on offer since April 21, 1895.
History of Participation
According to reports, more than 400 student athletes and another 150 persons comprising delegations of coaches, medical personnel and chaperones made the trip, completing the 59th appearance of Jamaican student athletes at these Relays. This after Kingston College kicked off Jamaica’s participation in 1964, an opportunity made possible by the late Herbert McKinley OJ, who had encouraged the outstanding Kingston College coach Donovan Davis to submit entries for a team at the Penn Relays after that schools’ performances at Boys Champs in 1963. McKinley himself had been an outstanding athlete for the University of Illinois where he had snared six relay titles between 1946 and 1947. Interestingly, Davis missed the application deadline at the time but made the cut in 1964 for the organizers to open its doors to Jamaican schools with the acceptance of a Kingston College team. Since that time, Jamaican high school participation has succeeded in transforming the annual relay carnival on the track while at the same time pulling in scores of thousands of paying Jamaicans into the Franklin Field stands. Despite the heavy financial impact that the Jamaicans have had on the event, it is important to know that the Penn Relays offers nothing in return to the Jamaican schools for their contribution beyond medals if they finish within the frame.
In the course of our participation (especially during that early period 1964 through to the mid-1990s, Penn Relays served as a connecting point for Jamaican student athletes and college recruiters and coaches scouting for talent to enrich the programs of various tertiary institutions across the United States of America. Naturally, Jamaica’s stature subsequently rose as the college circuit honed the talents of several of our athletes including the likes of Lennox Miller, Donald Quarrie, Merlene Ottey, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Raymond Stewart, just to name a few. Mind you, for every athlete that shone, many fell to the athlete graveyard as the heavy schedules took tolls on dozens of over-worked athletes, while many who were unable to handle the college curriculum and the physical workload fell along the wayside.
Substantial Changes over Time
In the last 25 years, Jamaica has seen less of a dependence on overseas coaches to prepare our athletes as the twin combinations of the G.C. Foster College of Physical Education’s production of a plethora of certified coaches, changing the approaches of dozens of secondary schools towards sports generally, and track & field specifically. Combined with the steady trek of retired professional athletes who have established training outfits across the island, the strength Jamaica’s youth athletic program is a matter of record as is the island’s reputation as the top athletics nation in the Americas. It is for this reason that instead of awaiting the arrival of Jamaican student athletes at Penn Relays, talent scouts, coaches and recruiters have established links in Jamaica to provide information on the talented athletes and to make approaches and offers to them long before even the Gibson Relays or Champs in Jamaica are run. In addition to this, Jamaica’s reputation is further buttressed by the fact that more than 85 percent of the athletes representing Jamaica on the international stage trains at home in Jamaica, making the need to go overseas to train almost completely redundant. In addition, the successes of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Shelly-Ann, and others has resulted in a growing number of junior athletes electing to go straight into the professional ranks as opposed to the traditional move to a college education overseas followed by a professional athletic career.
Importance of Overseas travel
With respect to the quoted Facebook comment, there were some who expressed the view that sending the youngsters to Penn Relays provides an attractive reward to the student athlete at the end of their season. To this I must confess that I can sympathize. After all, I can easily understand the desire of any young boy or girl to have the opportunity to experience international travel. As a young boy, I first tasted that experience in 1973 when I visited Trinidad as part of a contingent of Jamaican Army Cadets as part of an international Cadet Exchange program. It would take the passage of another eight years (1981) before I would again experience international travel, when I visited Boston, Rhode Island, and New York in the summer of that year. Unlike my first trip which was covered by the Canadian Armed Forces Cadet Exchange program, this time I travelled as a paying passenger on an airline. It was even more exhilarating, and despite the decadence that New York presented, I was still thrilled to have the experience.
It is high time we realize that a trip to the Penn Relays is an expensive anachronism. It costs the average athlete/entourage member more than US$1,200.00 to make the trip and all told, Jamaica is spending an estimated Ja$130 million dollars to finance such a venture to which the return on investment is almost zero. Keep in mind that the Penn Relays provides a major financial boon not only for the University of Pennsylvania which has in the last 10 years welcomed more than 60,000 paying patrons (nearly eighty percent being Jamaicans) annually through their turnstiles at an average US $55.00 per patron. These revenues provide a major injection for the Franklin Field community specifically, and the general Philadelphia business community, which in turn provides absolutely nothing for our athletes. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that in the more than 50 years that Jamaican teams have participated, not a single Jamaican high school student has ever received a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, beyond the use of its track facilities, the University of Pennsylvania and its organizers do not even provide lunches for the members of these teams. Meals and other refreshments have in recent years been provided by the Diaspora group “Team Jamaica Bickle.”
Jamaica a Track Powerhouse
Today, Jamaica is revered not only as one of the most powerful countries in world athletics, but also as the place where the world’s fastest men and women reside and train. Both the University of Technology and the University of the West Indies now provide successful track programs and offer scholarships to our best athletes. It is my view that the time has come for Jamaica to use its gigantic clout in the sport and create an international invitational Age-Group Meet for colleges and high schools as an option to the Penn Relays. In my opinion, the benefits are simply too significant to ignore. The earning potential for the island is huge as the meet will become a net generator of foreign exchange and transfer those revenues to local businesses as opposed to the close to one million in US currency spent by athletes and teams around the Penn Relays.
Build our own Relay Carnival- They will Come
It is my view that the lights have long dimmed on this relay Carnival in terms of its value to Jamaica's track program and development. Still we continue to make the pilgrimage year after year, squandering the gift of our youth talent that could stage a much more successful and meaningful event at home. An event that could provide significantly more benefits to a wider tranche of Jamaicans, if only we would buck meaningless traditions. I strongly believe that it is high time that we Jamaicans recognize our advantages and capitalize on them. Jamaica has the talent and the programs that currently produce the best athletes at high school and college levels and the Americans who are beneficiaries of the competition provided by the Jamaicans will come. This is Sports Tourism 101 and it is up to our design and marketing teams to create a product to satisfy that market. Let us flip the script and have the Americans and athletes from other Caribbean islands make the trip and provide the expenditures to our hotels, air B-and-B’s and our restaurants.
The scouts and overseas coaches, too, will come, because they will always need to discover the new “next best thing” in athletics and based on recent history, there is a greater likelihood that such a person will be Jamaican.