Sense and Nonsense: On a Glory That Does Not Fade

On the last week in April each year, two famous track and field meets are held, one at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, the other at Drake University Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa. When I was a boy in high school in Iowa, we used to compete in the Drake Relays. I well recall that there was something of a friendly rivalry between these two relays as to which had the faster times and the more impressive heights and distances in the field events. This year, however, the East Coast press did not even mention the existence of Drake as far as I could find. When I arrived in Philadelphia to watch the one-hundredth running of the Penn Relays, I tried to buy the Enquirer in the train station, but the man told me he was sold out. I called my cousin in Eagle Grove, Iowa, to get the sports page of the Des Moines Register, but on receiving “The Big Peach” section, I found nary a word about the Penn Relays.

Competing in the high school events at Drake, I won the pole vault in 1944 at the astonishing height of 11’3″ — the current world record approaches twice that height! I thought of this difference as I watched the pole vault at the Penn Relays this year. The vaulters I believe had to start the competition at 16’8″. Today, the technology of the pole used in the vault is radically different from when I was in school. We had bamboo poles at first, then just at the end of my “career” we began to get aluminum poles. Today, the poles are evidently of some sort of fiberglass and seem to be catapults rather than poles. The event remains riveting. I could not find what height won at Penn, but a man from Illinois won at Drake at 18’1 1/4″.

In any case, I had long intended to attend the Penn Relays. I made it to them once in 1947, when I was in the Army at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. Finally, just before the end of this semester, I decided to do it. I got on Amtrak at 8:30 a.m. and arrived at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia a couple of hours later. That is always a pleasant trip through Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, especially across the inlets and rivers of the Chesapeake. The walk to Franklin Field was only about ten or fifteen blocks, through Drexel University and the Penn campus. Franklin Field is an old, horseshoe-shaped field, not much changed from how I remembered it. I got a ticket in the east endzone. I thought it would be a lousy seat, but it turned out to be rather a good place to sit; I was right at the ending of the 100 meter dash and 110 meter high hurdles.

The Penn Relays is marvelously efficient. Every event was on time, even about five minutes ahead of schedule. Over 600 high schools competed and a couple of hundred colleges. Teams from Canada, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and even a team from Dublin were there. Many famous athletes of previous Relays returned, from Herb McKinley to Rafer Johnson. Bill Cosby, who probably ran in the Relays in his days at Temple, was apparently the Grand Marshall, or whatever he is called, but he did not make it. He left a message, the gist of which was “Good luck and enjoy. And for God’s sakes, don’t drop the baton!” Needless to say, not a few batons were dropped. I saw a pass right in front of me by two young men in yellow and the baton ended on the track. There is probably not a more foolish or helpless feeling than dropping the baton at the Penn Relays.

The press coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times was not great. Neither paper had any write-up on the Sunday after the meet, though the Times did print most of the results. I never did find out who won the pole vault, even though I could see the event.

The day at Penn was very nice; meanwhile at Drake there was a lot of rain and even snow to cope with. The crowd was the largest in the history of the Penn Relays, some 43,000 fans. The loudspeaker system was okay but not great. The “throw” events were held someplace else, so I did not see any of these — the discus, the javelin, the hammer throw, and the shot put. These are events I always like to watch. I suppose there is an element of safety here in where they take place. I still remember the look on a young man’s face, years ago at some meet. He was inadvertently walking across the field during the javelin toss, when he took a step only to have a javelin drop right between his legs. He was untouched, but he knew he just missed eternity by a fraction of a foot or so.

One event I did not at first quite understand. It was listed as #209, “Men’s Masters 75+ 100M” for 3:15 p.m. This event turned out to be for men over 75 years old. One of the runners was in fact 83. The race was won by a man from Naples, Florida, but the Times did not list the time of this event. The American record is 13.72 seconds, compared with 9.91 for college men. I noted this event down for future reference, as I used to run the hundred and see this as a possible outlet for excess energy when I qualify in a few short years.

My seat at the end of the 100 meter dashes and the 110 meter high hurdles — both spectacular races — was also just across from the high jump, which was won by a lanky young man from George Mason University at 7’4 or so inches. I remember that when I was a boy at the Drake Relays the college high jump champion won it at 6’8″. At the time, I walked under the bar and wondered how on earth anyone could get up that high. It still seems mind-boggling to me that anyone could jump 7’4″, which is not the world championship by any means. I believe it because I saw it. The first Penn Relays high jump was won by Walter Carroll of Princeton at 6’1″ in 1899. Who says doctrine does not develop!

A total of 290 events took place in the three days of the Meet. There were ads in the Relays Magazine I bought for six dollars. One especially delighted me — for a magazine called USA Thrower. This is one journal I have never seen or heard of, but I shall certainly look for it. One evidently well-known Olympic Throw Coach had this to say about the journal: “USA Thrower is a great way for throwers to comunate [sic!] with other throwers. It really promotes a stimulating situation for throwing in this country.”

Somehow this makes me laugh. I can just imagine some hefty former shot putter “comunating” with other throwers! Actually, Georgetown over the years has been pretty good in these events, as well as in middle and long distance running, though they are being challenged in the latter by Tennessee, George Mason, Arkansas, not to mention the usual Villanova and Seton Hall, known in track, evidently, as simply “The Hall.” I am against dropping Mother Seton myself.

One of Arkansas’ runners was quoted in the New York Times to this effect, “You can’t come to Penn expecting to break teams. You always have to prepare for the worst, to look for the Villanova and the Georgetown.” However, Frank Litsky, the Time’s reporter, remarked, “Year in and year out, Arkansas, Villanova and Georgetown have battled on this, the nation’s biggest and most prestigious track and field relay carnival. This year, Arkansas is as good as ever, but the others are not.” New and distant schools appear — LSU, Arizona State, Saint Augustine’s, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State. Little schools can be good in one or two events and make a mark. The remarkable thing about track and field is that you have a whole different hierarchy from other sports. This is the most ancient sport that can trace itself back to ancient Greece. Track, I think, depends more on an individual’s will to win. These are after all the classic human events by which we test ourselves against the best.

No doubt the most famous passage about racing in Scripture is that from Saint Paul. “You know, do you not,” he asks the Corinthians, “that at sports all the runners run the race, though only one wins the prize? Like them, run to win! But every athlete goes into strict training. He does it to win a fading wreath.” No doubt, as you look at past records from a hundred years of running, jumping, and throwing, as you see aging runners who have won medals and wreaths in their time, you realize that Paul knew both what races were, their glory, and the work that goes into them. He also understood what sort of symbol they intimated. “We,” he said, look “for a wreath that never fades.” It is at the peak of the ephemeral that the eternal appears.

The Relays, at Penn, at Drake, wherever run, test the limits of man as a physical being against the world, against those who now exist and compete and, with known records, against those who have competed before and are now gone and those who will follow down the decades on the tracks and fields of Penn and Drake, wherever men compete for the wreath. At the One-Hundredth Meeting of the Penn Relays, it remains true, all the runners still run, but only one wins the prize. There is a certain clarity about such events, a clarity that is also a symbol of a glory that does not fade.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...