Toward the end of Penn’s spring break, the basketball teams — and respective fan bases — from Harvard and Yale gathered at the Palestra for the Ivy League’s one-game playoff.
On the line in that matchup was everything: With a win, one team would advance to the NCAA Tournament while the other, it turned out, wouldn’t play again in 2014-15.
On that March afternoon, Penn’s famed basketball arena played host to one of the greatest basketball games in the venue’s history, probably the most thrilling game most people at the Palestra — myself included — had ever seen in person.
The sort of energy from that game isn’t seen terribly often when Penn’s campus hosts a sporting event, especially ones involving the Red and Blue.
Except for Penn Relays, that is.
Over the course of the next four days, over 120,000 people will fill the stands at Franklin Field in support of some of the most dominant athletes in track in field. For over 12 decades, the Relays — by far the most popular athletic event at Penn on an annual basis — have showcased an amalgamation of the purest raw talent the sport has to offer, with high schoolers and college athletes, professionals and Olympians all on display.
However, similar to the Ivy League Playoff, as well as the overwhelming majority of sporting events on campus, many students at Penn are apathetic about the Relays, arguing that they aren’t important because ... well, I don’t really know why.
To me, anyone — be it a sports reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian or a senior who has never been to Franklin Field while at this school — who is apathetic about the nation’s most famous track meet clearly doesn’t understand the event’s importance.
Because on top of the sheer size of the spectacle, one simple fact stands out: Penn Relays are important because they keep Penn Athletics — and, by extension, the University at-large — relevant in the sporting world, even when the Red and Blue’s flagship sports do not.
Yes, just like that one-game playoff at the Palestra.
The past two seasons have been undeniably rough for Penn football and men’s basketball. On top of the significant changeover in coaching for both squads, the product the Quakers have put out has been exasperatingly — and, in comparison to the established standards for those sports, significantly — subpar.
So when Penn goes through a difficult stretch like that, the University’s fanbase needs something in which it can take solace. This year, and every year, that outlet is Penn Relays.
And unlike that contest between Harvard and Yale, the Relays actually feature a handful of Penn athletes. Beyond the event’s importance for bringing superstars like Usain Bolt, Marion Jones and Allyson Feliz to campus, it also showcases homegrown standouts like juniors Thomas Awad, Sam Mattis and Kelsey Hay, all of whom will be on display in arguably their most important meet of the season.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Penn Relays is its ability to mesh supporters and cultures in a similar fashion to Penn itself. Between the over 300 events between Tuesday and Saturday, parents of local high school students, families of the top college runners and many from the island of Jamaica are able to share Franklin Field like it’s their backyard. If you’re not going to Relays for the action, at least go for the entertainment in the stands.
Tuesday marked the 121st anniversary of the first running of the Penn Relays, an awe-inspiring figure if you think about it. The meet hasn’t been interrupted once over that time period, living through 21 presidencies, two World Wars, nearly the entire span of Major League baseball and making it older than six states.
Talk about a legacy.
Still, one of the foremost issues confronting college athletics today is the problem of student apathy. Luckily, if Penn students need an excuse to visit Franklin Field this weekend, it isn’t for a college sporting event.
It’s for a world affair.
And if people on campus aren’t going to pay attention to the beauty of what’s happening right before their eyes, there’s no harm in having outsiders come show us the awesomeness of what sports at Penn can truly look like.
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