Jamaica and the Penn Relays – A 50 Year Relationship

A section of the crowd at Penn Relays

A section of the crowd at Penn Relays

The track is in glorious condition. The athletes are fresh, well fed and excited for the day’s events. They look up proudly to see the Jamaican flag soaring alongside the flag of the United States of America. Are they at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica? No! These student athletes have travelled over 1,500 miles to the City of Brotherly Love, otherwise known as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to compete in the Penn Relay Carnival.

The Penn Relay Carnival was first held on April 21, 1895 and has been held every year since. It has become one of the most well attended and exciting track and field events in the world with over 110,000 persons visiting Franklin Field to see more than 22,000 competitors. Only the World Championships and the Olympics surpass attendance of the three-day Penn Relay Carnival. The Relays were forever changed in 1964 when the high school programme added an-other international participant – Jamaica, represented by Kingston College. This was in no small part due to the gold-medal Olympic relay performances put on by former Penn Relays participants Herb McKenley (University of Illinois) and George Rhoden (Morgan State).

Some of Jamaica’s greatest sprinters emerged at the Relays – Lennox Miller, Donald Quarrie, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson, just to name a few. In fact, Lennox Miller, Herb McKenley and Inez Turner of Vere Tech are the only individual Jamaican inductees in the Penn Relays Hall of Fame.

 To put Jamaican high schools success in perspective, since their introduction, Vere Tech has won the most female championships with the next nearest high school all-time being Holmwood Tech. Jamaican male high schools champions include Calabar, St. Elizabeth Technical High School, Camperdown, St. Jago, Kingston College, Wolmer’s High and Jamaica College.

In 1994, Jamaicans in the diaspora, led by attorney Irwin Clare Sr., became aware that competing athletes needed nutritional support at the Relays. Out of this, Team Jamaica Bickle, a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organisation, was formed to play an active role in the development and care of the athletes.

The organization that began by serving lunch and dinner to student athletes from an 8-foot trailer now occupies a 2,400 square foot tent at the Relays. Team Jamaica Bickle is now a Participating Sponsor of the Penn Relay Carnival. The organization has also hosted a delega-tion from the Penn Relays directorship to visit the Jamaican High School Athletics Championships and donated US$100,000 to GC Foster College in Jamaica.

 In its twenty years of service, Team Jamaica Bickle has impacted over 12,500 student-athletes and served over 100,000 meals. The group has worked hard to raise over US $2 million to perform these activities with an additional US $2 million of in-kind donations from volunteers and well-wishers, none more prominent than the Vincent Hosang Family Foundation.

 This year, the organization will cater to about 800 athletes and officials, serving between 2,000 and 2,400 meals daily from Thursday to Saturday. The entity has organized approximately two hundred hotel rooms under management in the area and it has expanded, as the Relays now hosts teams from Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. In 2014, Team Jamaica Bickle will launch a medical and dental pavilion for the benefit of the athletes and officials.

One of the major sponsors of Team Jamaica Bickle is Grace Foods, which will be marking its 15th year of association with Penn Relays. Grace provides product support for athletes, sponsors championship events and also provides an experience for patrons. The Grace Village is the place for patrons to sample products, hear music, play games and enjoy giveaways.

In 2013, Grace used the Penn Relays as the staging ground for the launch of its new all natural coconut water in the convenient, recyclable Tetra Pak. Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Grace’s official brand ambassador, was on hand at the booth signing autographs and taking pictures with track and field fans throughout the meet who were no doubt thrilled to watch her anchor the Jamaica’s 4x100m women to victory at the Nike sponsored USA vs the World race.

In celebrating Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence, the organizers of the Penn Relays hoisted the Jamaican flag to fly permanently at the games alongside the flag of the Unit-ed States of America. Jamaica is the only country to have this honour, and on hand to witness that historic moment were the Prime Minister of Jamaica, the Minister of Tourism, senior executives of Grace and senior members of Team Jamaica Bickle.

In 2014, the 120th Penn Relay Carnival marks the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s participation in the Relays as well as the 20th anniversary of Team Jamaica Bickle. This will truly be a momentous occasion for the athletes, Team Jamaica Bickle, GraceKennedy and the diaspora who have supported this great event and Jamaica’s spectacular athletes for decades. Good luck to Team Jamaica!