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10 Years Later Usain Bolt's Historic Return to the Penn Relays

By: Rich Sands

Bolt's return to the Penn Relays will be included in Saturday's NBCSN show "Penn Relays: Best of USA," which will air at 12:30 pm EDT. Don't miss it.

Franklin Field will be quiet on the final weekend of April as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, a stark contrast to every other year, when the iconic Penn Relays lures tens of thousands of athletes and enthusiastic track and field fans to the storied Philadelphia stadium. And perhaps no day was louder and more electric than April 24, 2010, when Usain Bolt created one of the greatest spectacles in meet history. Hot off two successive seasons as the sport's biggest star, the Jamaican sensation returned to the legendary meet at the University of Pennsylvania for the first time in five years. And he did not disappoint.

In front of a Penn Relays record crowd of 54,319 that Saturday afternoon a decade ago, Bolt sizzled down the homestretch to bring the Jamaica Gold team to victory in the USA vs. the World 4x100-meter relay, setting a meet record of 37.90 seconds. "Usain Bolt came, and he delivered," sportscaster Lewis Johnson said emphatically on the ESPN telecast of the meet.

Indeed, it had been so loud in the stadium that the opening-leg runners had to be called up out of their starting blocks after the initial "on your marks" command. "What I remember most about that day is that despite having on our broadcast headsets, the volume got to a point where it ceased to become noise and it was just a deafening roar," Ato Boldon, who called the race alongside Johnson, said with a laugh recently. "That's not supposed to happen when you have headsets on."

"...the volume got to a point where it ceased to become noise and it was just a deafening roar!"

Bolt had just put together two of the greatest seasons in track and field annals, winning gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 4x100-meter relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2009 World Athletics Championships in Berlin, setting a bounty of world records in the process. (The relay title from Beijing was later stripped after one of his teammates retroactively tested positive for taking a banned substance.) He arrived in the City of Brotherly Love as a bona fide global superstar and the undisputed king of the sport. Adding to the anticipation was that this was Bolt's first time racing at Penn since a stint on Jamaica's sprint medley squad in 2005.

He arrived in the City of Brotherly Love as a bona fide global superstar and the undisputed king of the sport.

"There was a great atmosphere, similar to what we find at European track meets," Bolt recalled to the Philadelphia Inquirer last year. "I think there were more Jamaican flags in the stadium than 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."

Given the precarious nature of high-speed baton passes in the 4x100, and Team USA's long history of snafus in the event, there was the potential for an anticlimactic outcome. Boldon, however, says he had no doubt that an epic showdown was on tap. "You have to remember what Penn Relays is like for an American athlete," he says. "For all the dominance of the Jamaican fans in the stands and the Jamaican high schools on the track, American athletes, particularly American pros, look at Penn Relays as, 'This is our country, this is our turf and you're not gonna come here and beat us.'"

The race marked a turning point in Bolt's relay career — it was the first time he ran the anchor for Team Jamaica, after previously handling the third leg. (He'd hold the anchor role through his retirement in 2017, leading the squad to gold at the 2011, 2013 and 2015 world championships and the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.) Once the crowd quieted down just enough for the race to get underway, teammates Mario Forsythe, Yohan Blake and Marvin Anderson managed the pressure of the moment exceptionally well. At the top of the homestretch, Anderson slipped Bolt the baton with a slight lead over of a pair of American quartets.

"I got the baton pretty much in front, so I wasn't really worried about anything else."

As he unfurled his trademark loping stride, Bolt quickly opened up a massive gap on the field. Thanks to his sizzling 8.79 split, Jamaica's 37.90 clocking was well clear of USA Blue (38.33). "I told the guys to make sure I didn't have to work, because I really didn't want to do much," the charismatically confident Bolt said in a post-race interview. "I got the baton pretty much in front, so I wasn't really worried about anything else."

The crowd — dominated by boisterous fans waving Jamaican flags — which had already been loud, exploded into a boom of excitement following the race. "I think everybody who was in the building that day, no matter where they were or which direction they were facing, you knew when Bolt stepped on to that track," Boldon says. "Penn Relays gets loud, we've all been there for great finishes and great comebacks and all of that. But that much noise for any one person, I've certainly not seen that in my lifetime."

Credits:

Edwin Mahan