As one of the largest track meets in the world, the Penn Relays is truly a global competition.
While the number of international schools participating in the Relays has been on the rise, the number of runners hailing from the Caribbean islands has been increasing at a much higher rate.
This year is no exception as 4.2 percent of schools participating in the meet will be coming from one of the many Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands.
International schools began to participate in the Relays in 1914. In recent years, however, the number of schools from the United Kingdom and Canada has been decreasing, as more Caribbean schools have taken their place.
“[International participation] is not a steady expansion,” Penn Relays director Dave Johnson said. “It’s sort of a hit-or-miss proposition, except for the expansion of the Caribbean high schools.”
In 1983, nine Caribbean schools ran in the High School Boys 4x100-meter relay. This year, there will be almost quadruple that number, with 31 schools from Caribbean islands flying to Philadelphia to participate.
Most visibly, runners from Jamaica have been making their mark at the Relays. High-school runners from Jamaica hold seven Penn Relays records and this year, 25 Jamaican high schools will be competing at the meet.
Team Jamaica Bickle is an athletics organization that provides support and has helped stimulate the growing presence of Caribbean schools at the Relays.
Since 1995, TJB has hosted Jamaican high-school athletes and provided them with transportation, meals and housing.
The organization has provided support for many future Olympians to participate in the Relays, including Olympic gold medalists Veronica Campbell-Brown and Usain Bolt, both of whom participated in the event in high school. Bolt made his debut at the meet in 2002 and made a triumphant return last year when his 4x100 relay team set a Relays record.
Recently, TJB has been expanding throughout the Caribbean, extending support to schools from Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.
Since 2008 the number of schools from these two countries has increased nine-fold. One of the schools participating this year will be Trinidad’s Queen’s Royal College, which boasts famous alumni such as 2008 Beijing Olympic medalists Richard Thompson and Marc Burns.
However, Johnson notes that the Relays are not only growing internationally, but also within the United States. The presence of schools from outside of the Philadelphia area has also been increasing.
“You drop that pebble in the pond and the ripple keeps going outward,” Johnson said.
While participants from the Mid-Atlantic region still make up more than 83 percent of the teams, there is a growing number of schools from the South. This region’s programs — including North Carolina, Florida and South Carolina — make up the second largest proportion of runners with 5.8 percent.
Most of those schools closer to Penn are long veterans of the Relays.
“In that 25 years, the expansion has been outward. Most of the Philadelphia schools, for instance, have been participating for almost as long as they’ve been in existence,” Johnson said.
As more schools from the South and the Caribbean participate, the Relays will continue to serve as one of the most geographically diverse track and field meets in the world.
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