It’s fast, it’s fun and it electrifies a Saturday at the Penn Relays to a level that delivers goose bumps to most of the 40,000-plus spectators who find their way every year to historic Franklin Field.
The USA vs. the World competition consists of six relays – three each for men and women – featuring Olympic and world class-caliber athletes running in front of the largest crowd they’ll see in the United States except when an American city hosts an Olympic Games.
A number of countries participate but teams from the United States and Jamaica get all the attention. Fans wave U.S. and Jamaican flags and see who can outshout each other with dueling chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and “Ja-mai-ca! Ja-mai-ca!”
A collaborative effort of the carnival, Nike and USA Track and Field, the sport’s national governing body, USA vs. the World will be conducted Saturday for the 20th year at the 125th Penn Relays. The contestants for the events will be announced later in the week.
In the previous 19 competitions, more than 50 Olympics gold medalists have taken part. The greatest USA vs. the World session of all-time came in 2010 when Usain Bolt, who first competed at Penn in 2004 as a student at Jamaica’s William Knibb High School, returned to Franklin Field as a three-time gold medalist and the world’s fastest man.
A record crowd of more than 54,000 people filled every crevice of the ancient stadium to have a glimpse, delivering their first of many thunderous ovations when Bolt jogged in the infield about an hour before his 4x100-meter relay was to start.
“There was a great atmosphere, similar to what we find at European track meets,” Bolt, who won nine gold medals at the Olympics but lost the 2008 relay gold because of a teammate’s disqualification for doping, said Monday in an e-mail response to questions submitted by The Inquirer to his agent.
“I think there were more Jamaican flags in the stadium that U.S. flags. The Jamaican fans always make a lot of noise and create a great energy. Every stride I did in my warm-up got a cheer.
“It definitely felt like a home meet. The only thing comparable are meets in London, where there are also a lot of Jamaican fans.”
With the waves of sound in the stadium reaching a crescendo, Bolt ran anchor for Jamaica Gold. He clocked 8.8 seconds for his leg and carried his team to victory in a carnival record 37.90 seconds as fans from Jamaica, the United States and points elsewhere cheered and danced in the aisles.
“I’ve never seen this stadium this full,” Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays, said last week. “We got notice that he was coming 10 or 12 days in advance so there wasn’t any time to do any advance work. Suddenly it’s turmoil because we had to ramp up more security, more ticket takers, more vendors, more everything.
“It was a major energizing effect. The real benefit is that you had 54,000 people who are always going to say, ‘I was there that day and I saw Usain Bolt.’ That’s what comes out of it.”
How it began
Before USA vs. the World, world-class runners would compete at Penn for their shoe companies in Olympic Development relays. In 1999, an adidas team that included Antonio Pettigrew and Jerome Young, both of whom would win Olympic gold the next year in Sydney, won the 4x400 in 2 minutes, 58.52 seconds, the first sub-3 clocking for the distance in carnival history.
“The crowd was quiet,” Johnson recalled. “Then the college championships came out and they ran 3:08, 3:09, and everybody was hopping all over the place. So you had all these great athletes and nobody cared.”
He said he and Nike executive John Capriotti had been talking for “three or four years” about developing a series that would be more attractive to television (the 1999 carnival was not televised). Then when former Princeton star Craig Masback came on as chief executive officer of USATF, the pieces started to fit.
“I think Cap and Craig put together the idea of, ‘Let’s have these athletes in their national team uniforms,’” Johnson said. “That was the linchpin that made it all work. It was still many of the same athletes but you put them in their national uniforms and it changes the whole nature of it. Plus, USA-World helped get us back on television.”
The inaugural year’s races, featuring Olympic gold medalists Michael Johnson, Maurice Greene and Inger Miller, were rather chaotic. Members of some U.S. teams didn’t know they’d be running together until minutes before their race. But it all worked.
“I can’t understate how frenzied the run-up to that event was in terms of just trying to make the event happen,” said Jill Geer, a former chief marketing officer for USATF. “Everyone was running around juggling five balls. But when the athletes took the track in their national team uniforms, the roar of the crowd made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.”
Five events were run that first year and the United States swept. The women’s 4x200 team set what appeared to be a world record but the mark would be nullified after anchor Marion Jones was banned from the sport for admitted steroid use.
Michael Johnson anchored the winning 4x400 team the first two years, with his 2001 race being his last on American soil. Allyson Felix was a part of a record 12 winning teams in eight years, running 100, 200 and 400 meters during that time. Justin Gatlin would win his first USA vs. the World watch in 2003 and his 11th and most recent last year. Sanya Richards-Ross also took first seven times, first in 2005, last in 2016.
Jamaica delighted its fans in 2017 with three victories, including a 4x100 performance anchored by Olympic gold medalist Elaine Thompson that barely missed the carnival record.
The United States rebounded last year with five victories in six events. The women’s sprint medley team of Destinee Brown, Aaliyah Brown, Kimberlyn Duncan and Raevyn Rogers broke the world record, clocking a time of 1:35.20.
For Gatlin, who first appeared at the carnival representing Tennessee in 2001, the Penn Relays are pretty much an annual destination made possible by USA vs. the World.
“I love running the backstretch” on the 4x100-meter relay, Gatlin said last year. “I always see familiar faces in the crowd. It seems like always a dream coming back here, seeing the same faces in the crowd, the crowd getting hyped in the backstretch, getting ready to run, heart beating fast.
“So those are the memories that I have of being here. Hearing Jamaica cheering and then hearing USA cheering, there’s so much love here and so much competition, you can’t help but want to come back every year.”
The fans who come back every year would insist.
Number of watches won in USA vs. the World relays
12: Allyson Felix*
11: Justin Gatlin*
7: Shawn Crawford*
7: Doc Patton
7: Sanya Richards-Ross*
7: Wallace Spearmon
7: Angelo Taylor*
7: Lauryn Williams*
6: Debbie Dunn
6: Natasha Hastings*
* Also won Olympic gold medal