This year's Penn Relay Carnival, held as always at Franklin Field, Philadelphia, marked the 50th anniversary of Kingston College's participation in the prestigious games.
Prior to 1964, Jamaicans had taken part in the games. As Jamaica's former consul general to New York, Dr Basil K Bryan notes in his encyclopaedic work, The Jamaicans: Children of God in the Promised Land, athletes such as Herb McKenley (six-time relay winner with the University of Illinois) and the LaBeach brothers, had served as pioneers representing American tertiary institutions.
But in 1964, with guidance from McKenley and with Eli Matalon as chaperone, Kingston College took to the Penn Relays as an institutional entrant for the first time. Kingston College, then coached by Donovan Davis, entered two teams: the 4x110 yards and the 4x440.
Unlocking the Door
History recalls that the KC 4x110 yards team, comprising Jimmy Grant, Rupert Hoilette, Tony Keyes and Lennox Miller, took the title in a time of 42.7 seconds. The 4x440 team also performed well, taking second place in the finals. As first-time entrants, the Kingston College teams demonstrated that Jamaica was ready to take on the world -- if any such demonstration were needed.
Coach Davis, who was at Franklin Field this year to help mark the advent of Kingston College to the games, recalls that the school's application to Penn Relays was turned down in 1963 because it was late. Then, in 1964, there was some debate about a putative "600-mile rule".
According to this rule, Kingston College may have been ineligible to participate in the Penn Relays because the school was located at a point beyond 600 miles from Philadelphia. The binding character, if not the existence, of this rule was, however, readily open to challenge; for, Oxford University in England, and schools from Canada, located quite well beyond 600 miles from Philadelphia, had participated in the games prior to 1964. Indeed, Oxford had taken part in the games from as early as 1914.
That argument having been dismissed, the success of Kingston College in 1964 opened the way for Excelsior to join their purple and white colleagues the following year. And, with the passage of time, it has become a matter of course that Jamaican teams will be in the midst of the excitement at the carnival.
In marking Jamaica's 50 years at the games, Joe Juliano, in the Philadelphia Enquirer, points out that the girls of Vere Technical have won the Championship of the Americas Relay a whopping 39 times, while Calabar, Herb McKenley's beloved alma mater, has captured the boys' title on 12 occasions.
So this year, there was no surprise when thousands of Jamaicans turned up once again to mark the celebration of the Penn Relays Carnival. This was not time for bacchanal a la Rio, but there was mass exultation as Jamaican teams and individuals from Edwin Allen, Jamaica College, Calabar, Wolmer's, St Jago, Vere Technical, the University of Technology, and others, enjoyed success.
In the same way, pride overflowed this year when Jamaican high school boys took the top six places in the 4x100 metres, giving additional meaning to the terms "sprint factory" and "athletic dominance".
In marking the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's institutional participation at the Penn Relays, the City Council of the city of Philadelphia presented a commemorative citation to Jamaica's minister with responsibility for sports, the Honourable Natalie Neita-Headley, on Saturday, April 26, with copies to the Kingston College Principal Dave Myrie and Jamaica's Mission to the USA.
The citation presented also recalls that Team Jamaica Bickle, an active and important source of assistance for Jamaican athletes, this year celebrated its 20th anniversary of service to approximately 700 Jamaican and other Caribbean young people at the Penn Relays.
Other commemorative events in honour of the first 50 years also included the induction of the KC 1964 team to the Penn Relays Hall of Fame, the official unveiling of the Kingston College Flag at Franklin Field, and the naming of certain events sponsored by the Kingston College Old Boys' Association and GraceKennedy of Jamaica.
Every year, the Penn Relays provide an opportunity for Jamaica to shine. People still talk about the 2012 games which coincided with Jamaica 50, and with the visit of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to the Games, a year too when Usain Bolt and others burnt up the track.
Every year too, at least since the 1980s, one has the impression that Jamaicans, in green and gold, with flags ascendant, constitute the largest portion, by far, of the thousands in the crowd.
This, then, is an unqualified success story which reminds us not only of the value of sports in projecting Jamaica positively on the international scene. It also reminds us of the importance of our own Boys' and Girls' Athletic Championships as providing the foundation for Jamaica's tradition of excellence in athletics.
And, of course, the opening up of Penn Relays to Kingston College and Jamaica reminds us that numerous athletes have used this opening to obtain athletic scholarships and other opportunities, both at home and abroad.
We must continue to thank Herb McKenley, Coach Davis, and the members of the pioneering KC teams that stepped on to the Penn Relay stage 50 years ago. The cover of the programme for the Penn Relays this year features the flying Lennox Miller, who took KC home even as he faced injury upon approaching the tape.
Jamaican determination to the world!
— Stephen Vasciannie is a KC Old Boy and Jamaica's ambassador to the United States of America.