For the last 26 editions of the Penn Relays, the world's oldest and largest track and field meet, Dave Johnson has been at the helm as its Director. But now, after a three-year hiatus from the meet due to COVID-19, Penn track and field coach Steve Dolan will assume the reins.
“I am very honored and humbled to take the role of director from the longtime director Dave Johnson … He did amazing things with the event,” Dolan said. “Fortunately for me, Dave is still helping and a part of our team, he’s serving as a historian, so I still have him as a huge resource.”
Dolan was declared the new director in October 2021 after Johnson, who is the longest tenured director in Penn Relays history, announced his retirement in September 2020.
Dolan expects roughly 600 events to be contested, with over 20,000 athletes competing. To help host and officiate this massive contingent of competitors, many external volunteers were required.
“Beyond the athletic department, we have hundreds of officials and volunteers, some of which are track and Penn Relay alums, that come on the day of the event to help make this happen,” Dolan said. “As you watch the Penn Relays carnival, you will realize that this is a whole lot bigger than a regular track and field meet. We got Vendor Village, we got athletes of all ages, and it really takes the whole department and so many people to make this happen.”
As Dolan alluded to, the entire athletic department is involved in all aspects of the extensive preparation, from ticketing and marketing, to setting up the facilities for the races.
Specifically, Scott Ward, Penn Athletics' senior associate athletic director and chief operations officer, is acting as the executive director of the event. Aaron Robison, who spent the last five years as the director of Collegiate Track and Field at The Armory Foundation, is the associate director of the relays and its operational director. Gail Zachary is the assistant director, and Claire Hewett, Penn track and field's director of operations, has been doing a large amount of hotel planning and communication with and for the athletes.
Despite the previous two versions of the event’s cancellation due to COVID-19, Dolan believes that the meet will remain much the same of what fans remember about it.
“The core of the event, with athletes of different levels competing has stayed the same,” Dolan said. “We have athletes all over the east coast, and all over the country and from some international locations, particularly from the Caribbean.”
Some of the notable athletes participating are 11-time Olympic medalist sprinter Allyson Felix, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver and Olympic hurdler Devon Allen, and Olympian and Philadelphia native Ajeé Wilson. Dolan and his team of staffers have designated a few individuals to help these Olympic athletes find accommodations in Philadelphia.
What has changed from 2019, however, is the event’s schedule. According to Dolan, the college women’s competition is now aligned with the men’s competition on Friday and Saturday and some additional individual Olympic development events have been added over the weekend, to “dazzle the crowd at Franklin Field.”
“The college women’s competition being aligned with that of the men’s, is great for their publicity,” Dolan said. “We got some really high level athletes competing on Friday and Saturday, so that should be really exciting for the crowd.”
Even with recent concerns about COVID-19, Dolan does not expect fan attendance to be any lower than in previous years, where over 100,000 spectators came to Franklin Field over a three-day period, including nearly 50,000 in the last day alone.
“The response has been great from many fans, and many have even held their tickets from two years ago to go to this event. For many people, this is an annual must-be[-at] event,” Dolan said. “This is the 126th running of the relays, back from a two-year hiatus, so we are really excited to be back.”