By Arnie Leshin
It’s the first, largest, oldest and finest relay carnival in the world. It can’t be matched for size, crowd, or scope. That’s right, there’s not another one like it on the planet.
It’s when the City of Brotherly love plays host tothis virtually nonstop drama, minute after minute, hour after hours, day by day . . . Yes, nothing runs like the Penn Relays.
In Philadelphia, it’s yearly the talk of the town the last weekend in April. Parking is scarce in the surrounding University of Pennsylvania area, hotels are booked well in advance, results are shown each of the three days on the local channels, and it’s all over the pages of the two major dailies.
Since 1885, when Grover Cleveland was President, a loaf of bread was 5 cents and a haircut was
25 cents, they’ve replaced the cinder path with Astro Turf, they’ve brought in over a thousand high schools, over 300 colleges, foreign countries, Olympians, Masters, excited elementary school youngsters, and they even added the United States versus the World in the relays.
Sounds good, but it won’t happen in 2020. The Penn Relay Carnival officials announced that they, too, are more concerned with health and safety then risking lives to the worldwide threat of coronavirus. Around the world, almost every country has shut down events, and that includes the USA, and there are strict rules that need to be followed.
“Yes, we wait every year to have another Penn Relays,” said Gail Stastulli Zachery, assistant public relations director who formally was media director, “but we knew we had to close it down this time. We attract thousands of athletes, we have a ton of volunteer officials, and we usually pack in an average of 125,000 track and field lovers over three days here at Franklin Field.”
Thus, the 128th running of this elite event will not happen this year. No Philadelphia tradition, no cheese steaks, no souvenirs, no large crowds from Jamaica or smaller ones from Bahamas, Canada, Grenada, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and the Virgin Islands, no anticipated track and field events, and just one of the few times that the Carnival has not run.
“I understand that we shut down for World War I and World War II, but no mention of any other times,” Zachery said.
The cinder path had been a messy quagmire when it rained, from Friday and Saturday, the Carnival added Thursday for the ladies, and that became their day, one for the girls high schools and college women.
But what never changed was the clockwork of the officials, for when it came to the Relays’ final event — the college men’s Championship of America 4 x 400 relay — you knew the race would go off at 6 p.m., for that’s been the time that has been set in stone for ages, and the time when the spectators will depart after this event.
The many years go by, the Carnival gets older but better than ever. Kind of like a vintage wine getting better with age.
All this makes for the beauty of the Penn Relays, the breathtaking magic of the (always) last weekend in April, but not this year as it shuts down and joins this nation’s other sports events in the hope that a vaccine is found to combat this deadly virus.