Jamaicans Begin Descending On Penn Relays Amidst Tighter Security

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Prime Minister of Jamaica, Portia Simpson Miller at Penn Relays 2012. (Hayden Roger Celestin/NAN file photo)
By Barrington M. Salmon and Ann A. Walters

News Americas, NEW YORK, NY, Fri. April 26, 2013: Tens of thousands of Caribbean and other track and field aficionados began descending on the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field on Thursday, April 25th for three days of intense athletic competition, but this year security is tighter on the heels of the Boston bombing.

The bombing that rocked Boston on April 15th also cast a shadow over the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. Chas Dorman, Penn Relays media relations director, told NAN this week that the tragedy opened officials’ eyes and made everyone associated with the event take a closer look at security measures.

He said backpacks and large duffel bags will not be allowed into Franklin Field and there will be stepped up security as well.

“We’ll be augmenting security,” he said. “The media and athletes will be allowed to bring in bags but everyone will be thoroughly checked.”

Fans need to also prepare for longer waiting periods at security and to be wanded. Penn officials also say fans must ensure if they are taking in food items and sealed water bottles or juice boxes, place them in clear plastic bags.

Additionally no coolers, glass bottles and cans will be allowed along with animals except service animals; contraband items such as weapons, flag poles, sticks, and other poles; barbeque items and any open flames and of course – smoking.

Irwine Clare of the non-profit group, Team Jamaica Bickle, which hosts Caribbean athletes at the relays annually, disclosed that some parents from Trinidad and Tobago, as well as some from Jamaica called with concerns about sending their children to the event.

“I have concerns too,” said Clare. “Usually, we have not had pleasant experiences with security. The community needs to be educated. Don’t bring six plates and a dining room set, white rum and a $20 umbrella.”

Jamaica & Penn Relays

As they have since 1964, a number of Jamaican high school teams will travel from the tiny island nation to match their skills against some formidable teams from the United States and other parts of the world.

Dave Johnson, the Frank Dolson Director of Relays, said officials have received 1,070 entries and expect 50 foreign teams to participate. The Penn Relays, which began in 1895, hosts high-schoolers, athletes from colleges and universities around the country, and between 45 and 50 elite professional teams.

He said about 110,000 people would be a part of the three-day event, adding that with good weather forecast for Saturday, he anticipated the number of fans on Saturday to top 50,000 as U.S. Olympians take on the world in a rivalry that pits them largely against Jamaican Olympians on the tracks and fans from Jamaica against those from their adopted home in the stands.

Jamaicans from as far away as London, England – and all points in between – congregate at the Franklin Field every year to soak up the atmosphere, indulge their passion for track and field and cheer for team and country. Jamaica’s black, green and gold colors are emblazoned on flags, T-shirts, bandanas and an assortment of paraphernalia and the chants between American supporters and their Jamaican counterparts during the US vs. the World relays threaten to rock the rafters.

One highlight every year is the fierce rivalry generated by the US vs. the World relays which has seen the likes of Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, Veronica Campbell Brown and Allyson Felix vie for supremacy. Last year, Team USA swept the world relays for the first time in history, and a stellar international contingent will be seeking to topple them this time. More than 15 countries will compete, with relays contested in the 4×100, 4×400, women’s 4×800m and men’s distance medley relays.
On Saturday, US Olympic silver relay medalists Justin Gatlin, Trell Kimmons, Ryan Bailey, Doc Patton and Jeff Demps will be going up against the Jamaican team of Nesta Carter of the 2012 Olympic gold medal relay, along with Jason Young, Kimari Roach, Dexter Lee and Rasheed Dwyer on Sat. in the Men’s 4×100-m
While in the Women’s 4×100-m, the Team USA women will be the record setting relay line-up of Allyson Felix, Tianna (nee’ Madison) Bartoletta, Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter facing-off against Jamaica silver medal Olympic team with two-time Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart. The international field will also include: the Bahamas, Canada, Germany, Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago.
And in the Women’s 4x400m Relay, 2012 Olympic gold medalists Sanya Richards-Ross, Allyson Felix, DeeDee Trotter and Francena McCorory will face three members of Jamaica’s bronze medal team with Christine Day, Shericka Williams and Novlene Mills.

Such is Jamaica’s impact on the relays in the form of team and fan participation, that last year, relay organizers declared that Jamaica’s national flag would officially fly at this year’s Penn Relay Carnival in Philadelphia from April 25-27. Jamaica’s national colors will be flown every year, “into perpetuity,” in recognition of Jamaica’s celebration of 50 years of independence last year, and the contributions made to the track and field festival for nearly five decades by Jamaican athletes.

The special ceremony cemented Jamaica’s place in the games and Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller was on hand at the ceremony last year to personally deliver the flag to be flown at all future Relay Carnivals.

“Jamaica’s participation in the games has greatly influenced the yearly attendance. This is evidenced by the great turnout and vast number of black, green and gold colors all throughout the stands on a yearly basis,” said Johnson last year.

Natalie Neita-Headley, a Minister who holds portfolio responsibility for Sport in the Office of the Prime Minister, said Jamaica is honored by the gesture.

“I won’t say it, but there are many who say Jamaica makes Penn Relays,” she told NAN. “Kingston College was the first team in 1964 and there are many teams that go to Penn Relays every year. Schools from all over the country, even those in deep rural areas, participate.”

Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie, Jamaica’s Ambassador to the US and a distinguished Kingston College graduate, said Penn Relays holds a special place for him.

“The Jamaican crowd in the stands is a sight to behold — a symbol of unity reminiscent of independence celebrations and dancing in Half-Way-Tree during the Olympic Games,” he said. “I still remember the black and white photograph of Lennox Miller, Tony Keyes and other icons of the Kingston College glory years, as they posed with the Penn Relay shields which they took home from Jamaica’s first foray into the distinguished event in the 1960s. This was early evidence of Jamaica’s role in the globalization of school sports, and a harbinger of great achievements to come for the country as a whole. If you look at the records of Penn Relays, Jamaica’s prominence, indeed dominance, is a matter for superlative praise.”

“Long may this tradition of success continue and long, long may male and female athletes, from country and from town give their best at the Relays,” added Vasciannie.

Penn Relays: Reward and Exposure

George Forbes, competition officer for the ISSA Grace Kennedy Boys’ and Girls’ Athletics Championships in Jamaica, estimates that between 20 and 30 schools would be making the trip from Jamaica.

“Historically, Penn Relays has been used as a recruiting ground with Champs and then Penn Relays gives coaches a second look,” said Forbes during an interview from Jamaica. “It’s exposure for the athletes. They usually perform before 25,000 people in conditions that are very different from Champs. At Penn Relays, you warm up in the cold. It’s exposure to a new environment, truth be told.”

“Champs” is the largest high school championship in the world and the level of competition is indicative of how seriously Jamaicans regard track and field, said Neita-Headley.

Holmwood Technical High School Coach Maurice Wilson added that often it’s a big adjustment for Jamaican athletes coming to Philadelphia.

“For those people who haven’t traveled before, it always takes a while to recover,” said Wilson, who guided Holmwood to 10 girls’ championships in 11 years. “Some of them have never taken a plane ride. It takes a lot of preparation and psychological preparation.”

In the months leading up to the track meet – acknowledged by many as the biggest track meet in the world –Clare and an army of volunteers have been laying the groundwork to provide transportation, warm meals and a helping hand to hundreds of Jamaican and Caribbean athletes.

“We used to assist our Jamaican athletes but we now include athletes from Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent,” Clare said. “We’ve more like the head of the Caribbean family. We have an obligation to the Caribbean.”

Clare, founder and head of operations for Team Jamaica Bickle, said his organization has to raise about $100,000 in cash “to make the operation worthwhile.”

“The in-kind contribution is three times that,” said Clare. “Without Caribbean Food Delight’s $50,000 in man-hours, we could easily be looking at [costs of] $250,000.” He said the money helps reduce some of the costs associated with accommodations, ground transportation and tickets for athletes who want to be in the stadium before they compete in their events. Each year, Team Jamaica Bickle, which is in its 19th year, gives between $8,000 and $10,000 to GC Foster College of Education and Sport in Jamaica, he said.

Anthony Lawrence, global brand manager for Grace Kennedy, said Penn Relays is a big deal.

“It’s a way of connecting to the Diaspora,” he said. “The density at Penn Relays is about 60 percent Jamaican. It’s a good alignment. We’re looking to engage clients, expose our products and broaden markets. We’ve been supporting Jamaican teams for 19 years.”

Lawrence said the 91-year-old publicly traded company has relished the opportunity to care for athletes and provide them with meals at Penn Relays and also at Champs.

Clare said he looks forward to Jamaican and Caribbean athletes doing well.

“Athletically speaking, I expect of Jamaican and Caribbean athletes will be at the top of their game,” he said. “I expect them to be at their zenith. Penn Relays is the standard by which folks evaluate themselves. This is the Olympics for young people and allows us in the Diaspora to experience this. It restores national pride for us as a community. You can’t put a dollar value on that.”

Neita-Headley agreed.

“This shows how engaged we are in the world of sports since 1948,” she said. “Penn Relays continues to provide for athletic exposure and the ability for athletes to test their own skills and see where they are. It is a fantastic place to test our prowess and a fantastic place to be too.”