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Sam Carchidi | USA vs. World spices meet up

International competition excites fans.

Wayne Bennett (center) comes from behind to win the 100-meter race for runners 70 and older as he runs between Dick Camp (left) and Bob Lida at the Penn Relays at Franklin Field. Bennett claimed the crown in 13.98 seconds yesterday.
Wayne Bennett (center) comes from behind to win the 100-meter race for runners 70 and older as he runs between Dick Camp (left) and Bob Lida at the Penn Relays at Franklin Field. Bennett claimed the crown in 13.98 seconds yesterday.Read more

It's billed as USA vs. the World, but, truth be told, it usually translates into this: USA vs. Jamaica, mahn.

It's not as compelling as, say, the Red Sox-Yankees, not as mean-spirited as Rosie vs. Donald, not as mainstream as Mr. McGreevey vs. Mrs. McGreevey.

But it is great theater.


There were six USA vs. the World races at yesterday's Penn Relays. ESPN2 televised the last five. Luckily for the network, it didn't show a live feed of the first race, which was about as intriguing as a Green Acres rerun.

A bad exchange on the first baton handoff took Jamaica out of the running and silenced its loud and animated fans as they watched the USA Red team win the event.

"When they dropped the baton," said Hazel Clark, a Livingston, N.J., native who anchored the women's winning sprint medley, "the whole stands kind of went hush."

Ah, the Jamaica fans have become as much a part of the Penn Relays as the athletes themselves.

"They really get me going," Clark said with a smile. "Their energy almost makes you lose your mind."

"They're the loudest ones here - and they have the most here - and they make everyone run faster" said Miki Barber, a 26-year-old former University of South Carolina runner who has been participating in the Relays since she was a junior at Montclair (N.J.) High.

The Jamaica fans had a chance to dance and shout and wave their green, yellow and black flags when the USA vs. the World competition resumed a little over an hour later.

The hush morphed into a roar.

The U.S. teams won four of the last five races, but the Jamaicans were literally on their heels the rest of the day, making Franklin Field come alive.

Purists don't like these races of professional runners. They say it takes away from the high school and college performers.

Carl Lewis disagrees. And he has plenty of company.

Lewis, the Willingboro native and Olympic icon, was at Penn doing TV work. He said the USA vs. the World races, which began in 2000 and have become the centerpiece of Penn, give life to the sport.

When you realize that 46,363 fans attended yesterday's meet, Lewis makes sense.

"I think there should be more international competition here because it helps the kids," Lewis said. "To be truthful, I think it should be expanded."

Darvis Patton concurred after running the third leg on the Americans' 4x100-meter relay team that also included Tyson Gay, Wallace Spearman and Shawn Crawford. Those four stars - it was like sending Ruth, Gehrig, Aaron and Mays to bat in the same inning - won their race in a blistering 38.35 seconds, a blink ahead of second-place Jamaica (38.89).

"It's the closest thing we have to an international meet on this side of the ocean," Patton said. "It gives an international feel, and I love that."

Not everyone was happy about being here. Crawford admitted he would rather be home training for the Olympics.

"I could be a team player and say, 'Yes, it's very important.' But to me, I don't look at it as important," he said. "I run because I work for Nike, and it's a requirement."

Give Crawford credit for his refreshing candor. But, clearly, he's missing the point.

Stars such as Crawford and Gay are the lifeblood of a sport that, in most parts of the country, is moribund. It needs all the promotion it can get, and its marquee athletes need to embrace the concept.

Even an old-school guy like Mel Rosen, the former Auburn coach who guided the U.S. Olympic team in 1992, sees the merits of the USA vs. the World events.

"As much as it takes away from the high schools and the colleges, it brings out 50,000 people and gives the sport a lot more exposure," said Rosen, who served on the Penn Relays appeals committee. "To me, it's an addition to the meet. It's great for the kids to see athletes who have become stars."

In short, the pros from around the world serve as an inspiration to the young Penn Relays participants.

"Seeing the U.S. team go up against the Jamaicans and all the other countries, it gets our kids pumped," Florida State assistant Tim Vaught said. "The kids look up to them."

"Any time our kids can see a Tyson Gay or a Wallace Spearman up close, it's a plus," Texas Christian coach Darryl Anderson said. "They all have aspirations of getting to that level, and seeing them here helps them step up their game."

Track is a sport that needs all the fans it can get. That's why the USA vs. the World series is so valuable. That's the main reason ESPN2 had its cameras at venerable Franklin Field yesterday.

It's just a shame it went head-to-head with the NFL draft.