Only at the Penn Relays could the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, be upstaged by the event itself - the World's Greatest Relay Carnival.
Philadelphia has been host to a slew of fantastic sporting events: the World Series, the men's and women's NCAA basketball Final Fours, NFL title games, and U.S. Open Golf Tournaments. But only during the Penn Relays at Franklin Field does the number of competitors - 22,000 men and women - exceed, say, the number of spectators at the Flyers' Stanley Cup finals.
Of the dozens of races that started Thursday and continue through Saturday night, the one getting the most notice is the 4x100-meter, "USA versus the World" relay about 2:50 p.m. Saturday. That is when Bolt, the Olympic and subsequent world champion sprinter, and thus the current "World's Fastest Man," will run the anchor leg for his native Jamaican team.
As is the wont of the Penn Relays, though, there will be little pomp around that race, for there are many others that need to sprint off before and after. There is a race about every five minutes over 33 hours of competition during the three-day meet, said Penn Relays director Dave Johnson.
"If people want to see Bolt, I suggest they come by 1 p.m. and get prepared by seeing some other good races," said Johnson, who has been meet director since 1996.
Preceding Bolt's appearance will be relays like the Philadelphia Public School boys 4x400, the men's college 4x100 and 4x200 championships, the college women's 4x200 championship, and the high school boys 4x100 championships.
"Sure, it is stirring to see Bolt, but there are plenty of other great athletes to see. The Villanova mile relay team, for instance, is a good local rooting interest," said Johnson, 57, who came to his first Penn Relays in 1968 as an alternate on the Swarthmore High School mile relay team.
This is the 116th Penn Relays. The first version was held April 21, 1895, with four high school and five college relays, 10 individual events, and a two-mile bicycle race.
Runners from high school level to Olympic development are coming from more than a dozen countries including Jamaica, Canada, Barbados, the Bahamas, Trinidad, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. The latter two are sending high school teams.
Racing starts about 9 a.m. Friday and runs through about 7 p.m., with high school boys and girls, college men and women, and Olympic development races. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday there will be races with high school boys, college men's and women's, and the big events, like the one Bolt is in.
Partly because of Bolt's participation, there will be a decided Caribbean theme to the food and music in the Village, the vending area along the fringes of Franklin Field. There will be Jamaican food and plenty of good old American T-shirts and other clothing sold by various vendors.
Most spectators will choose to be close-up in the lower ring of double-decked Franklin Field, but traditionally, on the best of April Relays days, lots of folks decide to go into the upper deck's curved area, where there is a wonderful perspective of the races below and good angles, too, of the sun for proper pre-summer tanning.
Johnson expects more than 100,000 spectators over the three-day Relays, but urges everyone to take public transportation, especially with the South Street Bridge, which borders Franklin Field, under construction and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania a block away needing ambulance and emergency-vehicle access on some nearby streets. SEPTA train lines come to 30th Street Station only four blocks away, with many Walnut, Chestnut, and Spruce Street bus lines and the Market-Frankford El coming within a short walk of the field.
The 116th Penn Relays
Franklin Field, 33d and Spruce Streets, from 9 a.m. until evening Friday and Saturday. General admission is $16, $22 for reserved seating on Friday, and $25-$48 reserved on Saturday. Event schedule and information: www.thepenn