In 1929, 50,000 people packed the stands at Franklin Field to watch Finnish nine-time Olympic gold medalist Paavo Nurmi compete in the Penn Relays.
And though track and field greats such as Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson have graced the runway at historic Franklin Field since Nurmi, Penn Relays director Dave Johnson said that Usain Bolt’s attendance at this year’s event is the “biggest international appearance” in 81 years.
Bolt, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 2008 Beijing Games, will anchor Jamaica’s 4 x 100 meter relay on Saturday at 2:50 p.m. in the USA vs. The World event.
In Beijing, Bolt set world records in the 100- and 200-meter races. A year later, at the 2009 Berlin World Championships, he shaved an incredible 0.11 seconds off both of those events.
Bolt also set the world record in the 4 x 100m with Jamaican teammates Nesta Carter, Michael Frater and Asafa Powell. That trio will be joining Bolt on Saturday at the Relays.
But if you expect to see “Lightning” Bolt — as he is nicknamed — or any of his Olympic teammates, don’t cut your time too close.
According to Johnson, the race may occur several minutes before or after its scheduled time, depending upon whether or not ESPN chooses to air Bolt’s race on live television. Regardless of live coverage, the event will be televised on ESPN2 Saturday night between 8 and 10 p.m.
While exact ticket numbers are currently unknown, Johnson expects the Bolt buzz to bring one of the largest crowds to date.
“We have one very measurable thing to show that interest is up,” he said. “Web traffic on the Penn Relays website is up three times what it was a year ago. The amount of energy that we have here is just tremendous.”
While many of the spectators at Franklin Field may be seeing Bolt for the first time, the twenty-three year old is no stranger to the Penn Relays Carnival.
From 2001 to 2003, he competed for William Knibb Memorial High School in Jamaica. Upon graduation, he represented the Jamaican National team for two years at the Relays as he rose to international success.
Perhaps this is why, according to Johnson, Bolt’s camp “contacted USA Track and Field and said ‘we want to be there.’”
Johnson also credited the partnership between the Penn Relays, USA Track and Field, and Nike for coordinating Bolt’s attendance.
And amidst all of the excitement surrounding Bolt’s race, Division I powerhouses are careful not to let the hype distract from their races.
“We’ll enjoy the atmosphere, but is that going to make us run better? No,” Texas men’s head coach Bubba Thornton said. “We love the electricity and the excitement of the Jamaican people in the competition … At the end, what my guys are excited about is the possibility of hanging the plaques on the wall.”
And whether or not Bolt takes another victory lap, his presence at Franklin Field is sure to make some sparks. Or perhaps 50,000 of them.
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