The 25th year for Dave Johnson as director of the Penn Relays was unlike any other in the history of a competition that dates back to 1895. And as much as he tried to look ahead hoping to start the carnival as scheduled on April 23, a coronavirus pandemic was not going to cooperate.
The university’s division of recreation and intercollegiate athletics acknowledged the inevitable Monday, announcing the cancellation of the 126th annual Franklin Field carnival, which will keep more than 15,000 athletes and 110,000 spectators from enjoying three days of competition and camaraderie through April 25.
Officials said Penn would attempt to host a one-day track meet in late May or early June.
The decision marked the first stoppage of competition at the carnival, which also was held during World War I and World War II.
“Those were different circumstances,” Johnson said Monday. “This is a pandemic that has hit everyone. Back then you had gas rationing and travel restrictions, but the shape of the relays didn’t really change. Nothing’s ever changed it like this. Nothing’s come close to saying, large swaths of people just cannot go relative to the size and scope of the event.”
The CDC’s latest directive Sunday recommended the cancellation of events that attract 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.
The first brick fell last week when the government of Jamaica instituted a travel ban prohibiting high school athletes from traveling to Philadelphia because of coronavirus fears. Jamaican high schools had competed at Penn every year since 1964 and sent more than 30 schools last year.
Soon after, Maryland high schools from Baltimore and Montgomery Counties informed Johnson that they would not come to Penn. Then came a busy Thursday, when the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships and the Ivy League shut down all sports for the remainder of the academic year.
“Everything happened within one hour,” Johnson said Monday. “Suddenly things were rolling very quickly. You just bounce from pillar to post. We were still restructuring the entry standards for the high school events Friday with the Jamaican schools and the Maryland schools out.
“But late Friday, we heard about the provost’s circular that went around. It talked generally about events shutting down through the end of the semester, but it didn’t mention Penn Relays specifically. It wasn’t entirely clear, but we realized we had to start drafting a cancellation release.”
The formal announcement came from Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun.
“Based on the current novel coronavirus pandemic, we cannot host an event in late April without putting our participants, spectators, officials, volunteers and staff at risk,” she said.
“The University of Pennsylvania has hosted the Penn Relays for 125 consecutive years through the world wars and other worldwide health issues. The spirit of perseverance and resiliency will continue as we plan for a track meet later in the year when the health and safety of our community is more certain.”
Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan, whose program has won 94 Championship of America relays at Penn, along with 43 women’s titles, said the cancellation was disappointing, but he noted the importance of perspective.
“There are so many things going on in our lives right now,” he said. “Not to trivialize the Penn Relays, because it’s such an important part of our history and our program. But these are just unprecedented times. This is all part of learning. You put things in perspective and we know we’re doing the right thing even though it hurts.”
Johnson said the shape of a one-day meet at Penn later in the spring has not been decided. He said a portion of it would be to facilitate athletes trying to establish a qualifying mark for the U.S. Olympic Trials in mid-June, including college athletes who have no opportunities to compete.
As for now, Johnson remains at work refunding entry fees and getting through to coaches and officials to cancel flights and hotels. He’s too busy to think about not running the world’s oldest and largest relay carnival.
“I’m too much in it right now to reflect, making sure we’re on top of things as much as possible,” he said.
Officials said all ticket orders for this year will be credited toward the 2021 Penn Relays. Refunds for the sale of 2020 tickets will be available by request with a deadline of March 27. Questions can be sent to email@example.com, or by calling the ticket office at 215-898-6151.