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April 25, 2017

Penn Relays: Track’s Greatest Trophy

In sports there are a handful of truly great trophies. There’s the Stanley Cup. The Lombardi Trophy. What about the one with a bunch of flags poking out of it? Maybe even the one that brought MJ to tears. They’re all iconic, they all have an air about them. If you were in the same room as one you’d definitely walk up to it and say “I bet that thing is important.”

For a trophy to be great, it really only needs two things 1. It needs to be beautiful. This may sound vain, but nobody wants to drink champagne out of a Stanley Cup made of hot glue and macaroni bits. 2. It needs to have history. The longer people have said “I WANT THAT,” the more important the award. Bonus points if it’s too big to lift over your head.

Well, dear reader, what if I told you that track and field, despite its lack of mainstream appeal and popularity, has a pretty neat trophy of its own? I bet you’re thinking “it’s not that hard to believe.” And you’d be right, because it happens to be the trophy presented at one of America’s oldest, most prestigious, and widely recognizable meets: The Penn Relays.

The Penn Relays traces its origins back to a 4×440 yard relay between Penn and Princeton in the spring of 1893. The race, ultimately won by Princeton, was such a success that they did it the next year in 1894. These first two races drew enough attention that in 1895 the university decided to do the damn thing and sponsored the first official Penn Relays.

The attendance of the 1895 Penn Relays was said to be in the 5,000 persons range. Now my knowledge of early American census data is pretty spotty, but that had to be roughly 85% of the country. A smashing success if I ever heard of one.

Of course this is R. Tait McKenzie.

The 1925 Penn Relays was where the bronze and wood wheels first debuted. The design was created by sculptor, physician, soldier, and Canadian R. Tait McKenzie. McKenzie’s design depicts University of Pennsylvania founder, Ben Franklin, sitting in his library chair, extending a laurel sprig to four nude athletes that stand before him. The athletes themselves were fashioned after four Penn runners, Larry Brown, Louis Madeira, George Orton and Ted Meredith.

This scene is carved into an 18” bronze plaque, then mounted inside a circular wooden wheel surrounded by the words “Relay Carnival” and “University of Pennsylvania.” When they’re finally finished with the thing, the result is a gigantic trophy, two people wide, and about hip height on most people pictured with it. And this is something they give out for people who win a relay at an early season track meet. What do you get when you win the Olympic Trials, the pinnacle of domestic track and field? A silly medal. 

So how does the wheel stack up to the arbitrary criteria I initially set up for a great trophy? Its been around for nearly 100 years and was crafted by a very dapper looking Canadian(great history). It contains the image of a founding father carved into a precious metal and set into a very expensive looking wood (true beauty). It also gets bonus points because it looks like it takes about four people to hoist it into the air. Status: GREAT TROPHY.

If you or anyone you know has won one, and would like to describe to me what it felt like to hold over your head, please drop it in the comment section or email us at [email protected]. It’s probably far more interesting than what I’ve written here.

Also, if you want one of your own but don’t have three fast friends and a college sponsoring your entry, you can snag one on eBay, currently going for $635

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