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Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis and 125 years of thrills: Penn Relays documentary celebrates its history

The Relays first took place in 1895, a year before the first Olympics. COVID essentially left it dormant since 2019, but the Franklin Field carnival will be back later this month.

Fans cheer as Team USA Red's Je'von Hutchison leads in the final leg of the USA vs. the World men's 4x400 race during the 125th annual Penn Relays at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Team USA Red won the event.
Fans cheer as Team USA Red's Je'von Hutchison leads in the final leg of the USA vs. the World men's 4x400 race during the 125th annual Penn Relays at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Team USA Red won the event.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Recording the 125-year history of the Penn Relays was a difficult enough task with producers sifting through mountains of old photographs and grainy film to accurately tell the story of what is called “the Holy Grail of track and field in this country.”

The pandemic, however, told an entirely different story. COVID-19 shut down the 2020 carnival and an attempt at restarting in 2021 was reduced to a small meet with Big 5 schools and Division II and Division III teams from about a 50-mile radius of Franklin Field.

» READ MORE: It wasn’t the Penn Relays, but the athletes enjoyed the competition in the ‘Philly Mets’ at Franklin Field

Penn officials were looking for the right time to unveil their history lesson and they found it Thursday night when “The Carnival: 125 Years of the Penn Relays” was shown to a VIP audience at The Palestra, four weeks before the start of the 126th event (April 28-30).

The 75-minute documentary is produced by JTwo Films, a Philadelphia-based company. Narrated by veteran CBS sportscaster James Brown, it presents the relays from their debut on April 20, 1895 – the year before the debut of the modern Olympics – to the most recent competition in 2019, when much of the filming was done.

» READ MORE: An abbreviated Penn Relays returns for one day as the Philadelphia Metropolitan Collegiate Invitational

The documentary features Penn Relays legends such as Carl Lewis, Renaldo Nehemiah, Leroy Burrell, Herman Frazier, Vicki Huber, Justin Gatlin, and Raevyn Rogers. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the production came from Dr. Greg Bell, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist in the long jump who won his specialty for three consecutive years (1956-58) at the carnival, plus the 100-yard dash in 1957.

“I can’t say enough nice things about the Penn Relays,” Bell, now 92, said after viewing the film in person. “I was treated like royalty every time here and it was just nice that I went undefeated in all my appearances here. That was just icing on the cake.

“The facilities were always great, the officials were courteous. And the competition obviously was superb. So to have won three successive years at the Penn Relays sort of lets me know that, ‘You’re OK.’ ”

The documentary emphasized early how the Penn Relays had been opened to African-American contestants from the first carnival. One of the first was sprinter John Baxter Taylor, who went on to win a gold medal in the 1908 London Olympics.

“I think the theme came through very clear, which is something we really celebrate, the inclusiveness of the Penn Relays,” said Steve Dolan, Penn’s men’s and women’s head track coach who is in his first year as director of the Penn Relays. “All are welcome and actually the diversity of the event is what makes it great. It’s what we celebrate, the diversity of all, whether it’s by age, by gender, by ethnicity.”

The film showed that it took a while for the diversity to spread to women, but the Penn Relays — led by then-director Jim Tuppeny, the father of five daughters — established its first women’s program in 1978. The carnival initially declared Thursdays as women’s day but some events now continue Fridays and Saturdays.

Another visitor to the documentary premiere was Frazier, a Germantown High School graduate and an Olympic gold medalist in the 4x400-meter relay in 1976. He was part of a 4x400 relay team from Arizona State in 1977 that ran 3 minutes, 1.9 seconds, a carnival record that stood for 27 years.

“What we witnessed here tonight was awesome,” said Frazier, the senior deputy athletics director at Syracuse. “I thought it was wonderful how they integrated what happened in the world from the late 1800s all the way through with the Penn Relays.”

The documentary provided significant coverage of the USA vs. the World event at the carnival, which began in 2000, and the 2010 appearance of legendary sprinter Usain Bolt at Franklin Field.

The film was written and directed by Justin Jarrett, a co-owner of JTwo Films. One of the executive producers, Travis Capacete, is the other co-owner. Kevin Bonner, Penn’s senior associate athletic director, also is an executive producer.

Bonner said the idea for a documentary celebrating the carnival’s 125 years surfaced in 2018. Much of the filming took place at the 2019 event, but it was decided to delay its premiere until the Penn Relays resumed. He said the film will be shown on a continuous loop at the Palestra through all three days of the carnival.

“We’re just glad to finally be able to show the people, and we’ve got bigger things ahead for it, hopefully, because we want as many people as possible to see it,” Bonner said.

Bonner said officials are trying to get the documentary on a streaming service.