Track Coach

TC236 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS

All the World’s a Stage

When Aristotle sat down to write the rules of drama some 2500 years ago, I doubt he gave much thought to relay racing. His Poetics has been used by writers and authors since that time to construct plays, movies and television programs that have entertained millions and millions of people worldwide.

But if one were to somehow get Aristotle to attend the Penn Relays on a Saturday afternoon in late April for an hour or so I think he’d be asking to borrow someone’s cell to send a text back to his teacher, Plato with the short note, “I have a new idea.”

According to Aristotle a dramatic production consists of six things: spectacle, characters, plot, melody, diction and thought.

Right off the bat the Penn Relays has spectacle. Whether one is talking about the street vendors, Franklin Field, the crowd of 50,000+ rabid fans, the cattle call of the bullpen or the seemingly endless race after race of talented athletes that generate the sights, the sounds and the swirl of colors that becomes more than any scribe could ask for.

The characters are countless but there are some that stand out with heroic deeds. The early press, a program or a neighbor’s overheard chatter can spark some remembrance of a previous performance or foreshadow which characters warrant greater attention. Uniforms and sweat suits also can give a clue. And for the athletes themselves there is always the quiet recognition of a head turn or nod that acknowledges special status.

The plot would be pretty simple. Something everyone “gets” in a matter of moments. Four people, each runs individually, and they hand off the stick. Initially simple and straightforward. But the plot does “thicken” when one starts to mention tradition, win streaks, records, rivalries, challengers and how the individual teams deal with the struggles of the elements – the sun, wind, rain, the track that can all complicate choices and present unforeseen obstacles that beg the question – just whose side are the Gods on today?

Melody is a harmonious sound. The soundtrack at Penn is noise, the cackle of thousands of voices pointless and discordant. But the action on the track focuses the sound for the momentary hush of a race start to the adrenaline rush of the woo-woo birds to the final breathless finish. An acquired taste? Easily.

In the end there is thought. This is a time of consideration and contemplation of what has happened. The thoughts might be awe, inspiration or admiration. They may offer the example of perseverance, drive or dedication that inspires the audience to emulate, especially for the young. For the old it may generate a time of reflection, a wistful time of pleasant memories of days gone by.

Diction is the stretch. No one enunciates when they are running fast. It’s not that one can’t, it’s just that one doesn’t. And with the set-up of the stadium, who is going to hear what gets said anyway? Profanity and guttural grunts do little to move the storyline forward. But given a quieter stage and a time to reflect, be that time years or even decades, the characters would have something to say, something that would illuminate and be of import to fans and fellow competitors alike.

The success Villanova University has had at the Penn Relays over the last 50 years is legendary. The names of some of the characters/runners are woven deeply into the fabric of that event and even the sport itself. From 1966 to 1981 Villanova had a remarkable streak of 16 consecutive distance medley relay victories against all comers. Year-in, year-out the result was the same, even though the cast of characters changed regularly with graduation after graduation.

Jerry Bouma, a long ago teammate of mine, is writing a book on that streak. Together we have gathered some of the “characters” that made for those successful races. Lest one think this is a simple trip down Memory Lane these are all four-minute milers, who won 32 individual IC4A championships, 22 individual NCAA champions, 52 Penn Relay titles, set American, national and world records. Many were true Olympians. It is an extraordinary collection of exceptional young men. In this issue they’ll talk about the preparation, the teamwork, the trust and the mindset that went into the culture that Jumbo Elliott and Jack Pyrah created that made for one of the more remarkable win streaks in the history of track & field.