July 2013 Volume 10

Paving the Road to the Penn Relays: Jamaica’s Odyssey

Derrick R Wright
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An Item of Note:  First published in the previous edition of the KC Times, this article has been updated to include additional insights from legendary KC sports master Donovan Davis.

When you think of the Penn Relays, you probably think of its long history, which dates back to 1895.  And, if you are a Jamaican, you almost certainly think of how far Jamaicans have come, not just in terms of our achievements on the field, but also about how Jamaicans have made their presence felt in the stands at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field, where the events are held.  Then, if you are a Kingston College fan, you quite likely think back with pride as you realize that KC was the first Jamaican school to compete in and win at the Penn Relay Carnival, as this spectacular annual event is known officially.

If you understand Jamaicans, “carnival” is synonymous with “festival,” and Jamaicans certainly have a festive time now at the Penn Relays, year after year.  They start arriving at Franklin Field early in the morning. They normally bring coolers packed with goodies such as jerked fish, and jerked whatever.  However certain security restrictions were in place in 2013, so coolers were left at home, for the most part.

Jamaicans come from far and wide sporting their finest black, green and gold outfits.  Interestingly, of the three colors, it appears that gold is the favorite, which might be related to the fact that Jamaican athletes are reaping gold left and right as they show their worldwide competitive prowess…and competitive genius.

Over the years, Jamaicans have been filling the stands more and more.  As far as your eyes can see, it’s all black, green and gold.  Rough estimates are that 75% of the estimated 50,000 patrons in the stands on the final day of the event (Saturday) are Jamaicans. When Bolt competed in 2010, the attendance level soared to 55,000, breaking the previous one-day attendance record.

The next most popular combination of colors is, you guessed it, purple and white, and for very good reason, as you might have gleaned from my opening paragraph.  In fact, occupying the entire row of seats in front of me at the relays last time was a group of KCOBs and their family members.  Apart from the fact that they looked quite distinguished and successful (as KCOBs usually do), I found that the guys were KCOBs since one member of the group had on a purple scarf or something of the sort.  I soon found out that Dave Brown, who was a member of the group, actually started at KC in 1963, the same year as I did.

We are very proud of KC’s appearances and performances over the years.  We watch, with glee, for instance, as “Kingston College scorch to a 4x100m win,” as one reporter said of  the High School Boys’ Championship of America event at the recently completed 119th staging of Penn Relays April 2013.

We are Jamaicans, of course, so we naturally celebrate quite passionately, ecstatically and vociferously as Jamaica’s team of Sherone Simpson, Kerron Stewart, Anneisha McLaulin and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won the USA vs the World Women 4x100 that same day.  It is no secret that, over the years, Jamaicans have performed exceptionally well at Penn Relays.  To check all results for 2013, CLICK -à http://pennrelaysonline.com/Results/schedule.aspx?DB_OEM_ID=1720&t=d&d=s  or visit simply www.pennrelaysonline.com for any result you need.

Now, regarding the Penn Relays, how did it all start for KC, and for that matter, Jamaica? Not well known is the fact that there were a number of hurdles that legendary Sports Master Donovan Davis faced initially in 1963, when KC first sought to participate in the Penn Relays.  For one, there were logistical issues.  The Penn Relays Carnival is scheduled relatively close to Champs’ schedule, so that presented certain timing and other logistical issues.

In addition, the Penn Relays Carnival had an eligibility rule whereby participating teams had to originate from within a 600-mile range of the University of Pennsylvania.  On top of all that, the fact that we were “Kingston College,” as opposed to Kingston High School, undoubtedly gave many overseas competitors the impression that we were performing at the university level, as opposed to the high school level.  They must have had certain doubts, too, about whether high school athletes could really post the fantastic performance times being reported.

In any event, KC’s initial 1963 entry was denied.  However, Herb McKenley and Richard Ashenheim, along with KC Headmaster Douglas Forrest and Sports Master Davis, worked arduously to help KC overcome a number of challenges.  For one, at the time a Canadian team was actively participating in the Penn Relays, so it was argued that KC should be allowed to participate, and Penn Relays Meet Director Doherty was very much supportive of KC’s entry.

By 1964, KC was in, for good.  In his book “The Brave May Fall but Never Yield: The History of Kingston College, 1925 – 2006,” Ambassador Anthony C. Johnson, a KCOB, wrote that the Penn Relays was another innovation attempted at KC in 1964.  Attempted?  Quite an understatement, as we now know.

“KC becomes the first Jamaican school to participate in the Penn Relays, the most prestigious high school athletic event in the USA,” Johnson attested in his book.  “KC Sports Master Donovan Davis, KC Chairman Matalon, (and) JOA Chairman Sir Herbert McDonald thank the University of Pennsylvania’s Meet Director Doherty,  who acts as host, as KC also becomes the first foreign team to win a race at the Penn Relays, that being the sprint relay with Tony Keyes, Captain Lennox Miller, Rupert Hoilette, and Jimmy Grant.”  That 1964 KC Penn Relays team included the four members of the championship team, as well as Colin Greene, and Gregory Ramsay.

Separately, from the “Kingston College 40th Anniversary Magazine, 1965,” in a piece entitled “Sports ’65,” and authored by Egbert Whitworth, Upper Sixth Form: “In April a Kingston College team consisting of Lennox Miller, Rupert Hoilette, Tony Keyes, Jimmy Grant, Gregory Ramsay and Colin Greene brought honor to Jamaica and (KC) when they won the 440-yards relay and the mile relay at the Penn Relay Carnival. They broke the 21-year record held by Brooklyn High School, when they returned a time of 41.7 sec. in the 440-yards relay. “

In his summary, Whitworth wrote that “The performance of the boys was an indication of the tremendous amount of work put in by our sports master and coach, Mr. Donovan Davis, and our weight training instructor, Mr. Youngster Goldsmith. One cannot forget the valuable services rendered by devoted Old Boys and their friends who leave their work, tired, to come and assist us.”

In 1966 KC proved that their impressive performances were not merely coincidental.   For the first time in 70 years, a team won the sprint relay in three consecutive years, as KC masterfully captured the championship with a win in 43 seconds flat.  That 1966 championship team: Jimmy Grant, Ralston Johnson, Patrick Beckford, and Colin Greene.

So, Jamaicans are on top at the Penn Relays, on the field and in the stands.  Back in 1963 and 1964, who could have foreseen that we would have gotten to this point?  Some Brave souls at Kingston College undoubtedly did, Old Boys included, of course. 

Next year marks 50 years at the Penn Relays for KC, and of course, Jamaica.  Let the celebrations begin!  Maybe 2014 should be the official year of purple and white at the Penn Relays.  Fortis!

NOTE: Legendary KC Sports Master Donovan Davis contributed to this article.

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