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Penn Relays: The Oldest and Largest Track and Field Competition in the U.S.

April 20, 2022

Hosted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field since 1895, the Penn Relays is the country’s oldest and largest track and field competition.

The Penn Relays draws more than 15,000 participants from across the United States and abroad each spring. The athletes range in age from pre-teen to nonagenarian. The event also attracts more than 110,000 spectators. The 126th running of the Penn Relays will mark the return of the annual event after organizers were forced to cancel it in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2022 Penn Relays will be held Thursday April 28 to Saturday April 30, 2022.

2019 Penn Relays. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Relay running – members of competing teams run a specific distance before passing a baton to another team member – was relatively new when the University of Pennsylvania decided to add a relay race to its annual spring meet. The sport has exploded since then, with many giving credit to this event.

2019 Penn Relays. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

The relay competitions remain fan favorites, with thousands watching the six USA versus the World races. Other track highlights include the 400 meters hurdles run, an obstacle-laden steeplechase and relay races for the Special Olympics. Field events include the pole vault, high jump, shot put and the javelin throw.

Several Olympians are set to compete this year, including Allyson Felix who has competed in five Olympic Games and won 11 Olympic medals. After winning bronze and gold in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Felix announced that she plans to retire after the 2022 track and field season – making the Penn Relays one of the final competitive events of her career. All eyes will be on the track as Felix competes in the 300-meter event, scheduled for the last day of the Penn Relays.

Outside Franklin Field is a festival offering food, drink, and sport memorabilia.

10 fun facts about the Penn Relays and Franklin Field, where the games take place

2019 Penn Relays. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

1. The Penn Relays is global and growing. U.S. athletes have faced competitors from Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. The number of international participants has increased each year as American colleges recruit athletes from overseas.

2. Track legends including Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt have competed in the Penn Relays, as have about 50 Olympians, including Shelley Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson. Other recognizable names who have taken to the track or field include Wilt Chamberlain, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Buzz Aldrin, Paul Robeson and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.

2019 Penn Relays. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

3. In years past, tens of thousands of people have attended the Penn Relays each day, sometimes selling out Franklin Field, which seats about 52,600 spectators. More than 110,000 spectators and 15,000 competitors are expected over the course of the three-day event again this spring. 

4. The near constant action on the field ramps up the energy in the crowd. Some track and field events have breaks that can stretch to 10 minutes between events. The Penn Relays’ races are back-to-back.

5. This year, more than 425 races will be run, an average of more than one race every five minutes. The six relay races – three each for men and women – draw the biggest crowds. There’s an ongoing rivalry between the U.S. and Jamaica, with supporters of both sides filling the stadium.

6. The original Franklin Field was a wooden structure dedicated in 1895, just in time to host the Penn Relays. About 5,000 spectators attended the inaugural event. The stadium is named for American Founding Father Ben Franklin, who helped establish the University of Pennsylvania. It is the home field for the university’s football, lacrosse, and track teams.

2019 Penn Relays. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

7. The current stadium was built in 1922. A second tier of seating was completed in 1925, making Franklin Field the largest two-tiered stadium in the U.S. The stadium was the site of many “firsts,” including first scoreboard, first football radio broadcast, and first commercial football game television broadcast.

8. Franklin Field was the home field for the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles from 1958 to 1970. The Eagles hosted the 1960 NFL Championship Game here, defeating the Green Bay Packers 17-13. It was Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi’s only career playoff loss. The annual Army-Navy football game was also held here for about 20 years.

9. Franklin Field has a place in presidential history. In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the 1936 Democratic presidential nomination here in front of 100,000 supporters. His speech included a foreshadowing of World War II as he noted that they were living in “a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations, much is given. Of other generations, much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

2019 Penn Relays. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

10. Franklin Field was a backdrop in director M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable, in which actor Bruce Willis played a security guard for the stadium. Franklin Field was also featured in the movie, Invincible – centered around the true story of Vince Papale and the Philadelphia Eagles – with scenes shot on the field, in the stands and in the locker room at Franklin Field.

Cover photo: 2019 Penn Relays. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

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