The SEPTA platform at the University City station is almost empty, but climbing the steps to South Street beside Franklin Field leads us into chaos: crowds of high school girls in track suits heading determinedly for god-knows-where, frantic coaches trying to keep them together, vendors unloading delivery trucks, yellow-vested stadium crews shouting to everyone, police waving traffic along, the drivers totally confused as to where they should go, barricades everywhere without obvious purpose. We cannot even see where we should enter until one of the stadium crew calls to us, “Over here, over here!”
We squeeze by the others, show our tickets, and pass into the dark underbelly of the stands, into more chaos of similar people, all frenetically rushing in different directions. Where are they going? We rush, too, without knowing where or why. My friend, my age, is familiar with Franklin Field, and leads the way. “Follow me,” he calls back, slicing expertly between the crisscrossing eddies of people, and we suddenly emerge into the openness of the stands, the vivid colors in the bright light momentarily stunning our eyes. He sees empty seats near the center of a section and we move toward them, stumbling over huge gym bags, sliding past groups of girls in matching school track suits who are sitting, standing, napping, snacking, tightening the spikes on their spotless track shoes with bright chrome wrenches, conferring about their upcoming events, calling to others in adjoining sections of the stands. On the track, runners fly by, high jumpers flop over the bar, and broad jumpers splash into the pit of loose sand.
The 1960s invented a new use for an old word: a “happening,” an event where the experience of being immersed in the atmosphere transcends the event itself, each spectator becoming a participant. Like the Hindu cap of beads where each bead reflects all of the others, each spectator is part of the show for everyone else. The event has to be large to achieve “ignition.”
The term faded as fast as disco music and left a gap in our vocabulary, but with no other way to describe it, the Penn Relays is a “happening.”
The Penn Relays used to be known as an an all-black celebration. Even if that was once true, it is not now. Running has become a popular sport for all races (no pun intended) and social classes. Many of the best teams now represent expensive private schools. Bottom line, the mix of blacks, whites, and Asians seems pretty close to the normal population.
We are there on the morning of first day when the least important races—women’s relays—are scheduled, but none of them feel they are the least important. It is enough for us is to be among excited athletes living a moment they will never forget. About half of the people in the stands are the participants waiting for their events, while the other half are evenly divided between their coaches and chaperones, and general fans like us.
Once in the stadium, we are officially not allowed to leave and return, but a guard promises to allow my friend back in when he briefly leaves for coffee. When he returns, a different guard is there, but he easily honors the promise, typical of everyone’s laid-back, lets-enjoy-this-day-together attitude.
The mind-boggling problem of getting excited high school girls at the right spot along the track at the right time for the relays that are going off every fifteen minutes is handled with cool, practiced efficiency. The teams are first assembled immediately outside of Franklin Field well over an hour before their event. They are then led to a sectioned-off holding area in a corner of the field divided by relay position, and finally led to their proper place along the track one race before they are due. This goes on without a hitch all day long.
Not all of the athletes are in high school. The big-name college teams are also there, UCON, Tulane, Auburn, West Virginia, St. John’s. They move into place with the calmness of just-another-day-at-the-office, then explode from their positions.
The girls are amazingly fast, particularly in the 4 x 100 relays, flying along the track seemingly six inches above the surface. There is no sense of each foot landing on the track to create a fresh propulsion. Each foot moves through the entire step with unimpeded acceleration and without imparting a millimeter of up-and-down motion. First place or last, they all run with equally sublime beauty. Later I learn that Delaware’s local team, the Tatnall School, did very well, and although I am aware of their race, I do not notice where they place. The finish, at the far end of the field, is unimportant to me. Another race soon begins, and then another, and another. Even the participants, I suspect, will someday realize no one school had special moral qualities that made them more deserving to win, that the whole of their participation was important, not the individual specifics.
I identify with the team from the Episcopal Academy (wherever that is) who are seated in front of us. Throughout the day, I observe each of their personalities. I get caught up in their excitement and watch them move through the assembly process, perform their race, and return to the stands. As soon as they get back to their belongings, they pull cell phones from their gym bags and call their friends and family with the results. They did not do as well as they had hoped and are glum with disappointment, but I assure them they are the fastest Episcopalians I have ever seen.