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Penn Relays cash falls short of Jamaican high schools

Published:Thursday | April 29, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer

Organisers of the Penn Relays have acknowledged that while Jamaican high schools are key to the meet's huge success, they can offer little to help them cover burdensome expenses or obtain United States visas to make the trip here each April.

According to Dave Johnson, the Frank Dolson director of Penn Relays, while the meet's organisers are aware of the difficulties Jamaican high schools face in raising money to compete at Penns, the University of Pennsylvania, which runs the meet, is not allowed to offer financial or any other type of favours to any high school.

"We can't provide any direct or indirect assistance," Johnson said days after the 116th staging of the prestigious meet ended last weekend at Franklin Field.

Johnson also explained that the university could not sway the American embassy in St Andrew in cases where Jamaican athletes apply for visas to travel to Penns.

Little influence on embassy

Each year, schools report that visa applications are denied, which in some cases causes, them to leave quality athletes behind, thereby reducing their chances for success at the meet.

"We have had contact (with the US Embassy), but I have to tell you, we have very little influence," Johnson explained. "The embassy does not see Penn Relays as a major driving force ... . They just don't care about that.

"I do know there is a problem, but I do know there's a strong limit on the influence we have," he added.

Johnson said he has been informed that the problem of funding Jamaican high schools to attend Penns was "extremely serious". But the university is prohibited under the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which governs college athletics in the US, from offering financial help, even to ease the burden of expenses such as travel, accommodations and entry fees for events.

Such contributions would constitute a recruiting violation and could lead to the university being disciplined by the NCAA.

"Anyone in high school counts as a (recruiting) prospect," said Johnson. " ... No one can receive assistance."

No high-school exemptions

Colleges from Jamaica which compete at Penns, including the University of Technology and G.C. Foster, are not restricted by the NCAA. Johnson said entry fees for individual and relay events - US$20 and US$35, respectively - are waived for the colleges.

But the high schools have no such leeway. They rely mainly on help from corporate sponsors, alumni and the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) in Jamaica.

When they get to Penns, organisations such as Team Jamaica Bickle assist with meals and transportation. Still, money poses a huge problem.

"It's extremely burdensome for the high schools from Jamaica to go to Penn Relays," said Raymond 'K.C.' Graham, who as coach of Camperdown and St Jago took teams to the meet for more than 20 years.

"It is very difficult, very hard. Sometimes you have problems carrying your best team. Sometimes you have no money to carry reserves."

Despite the difficulties being faced by the athletes competing at Penns, Johnson conceded that the attraction of Jamaica's success at the meet has had an enormous impact on the prestigious three-day relay festival.

This year, close to 40 Jamaican high schools competed at Penns. Holmwood Technical and Wolmer's recorded multiple relay wins. Holmwood's Chris-Ann Gordon was named girls' high school relay athlete of the meet, while Wolmer's Julian Forte took the honours for the boys. The competition between Jamaica and the US in the international relays is also a major drawing card for Jamaican fans each year.

Cash cow

Meanwhile, a massive chunk of Penns tickets are bought by supporters of teams from Jamaica, including the high schools. Last Saturday, the final day - with the most expensive ticket prices - a record single-day crowd of 54,310 turned up. Sizeable crowds of 24,132 last Thursday and 38,904 last Friday also attended.

Jamaican high schools featuring multiple teams in many of the finals are a big reason of the large turnout. According to Johnson, various 'samples' have counted the vocal, colourful Jamaican support anywhere between 30 per cent and 90 per cent on the final day of the meet over the years. His own estimate is closer to the middle.

"At a given Saturday, I would say 50 per cent" Jamaican support, Johnson said. "I think that's fair, and it might be an understatement."

What is hardly in doubt is the profit secured from the meet. While Johnson on Tuesday said the final figures for Penns 2010 were not yet available, last year's final day earned about US$750,000 from ticket sales.

This year's record crowd, largely attributed to sprint superstar Usain Bolt's participation as a member of a Jamaica 4x100 metres relay team, is expected to boost the Penns financial returns significantly.

Johnson also acknowledged that Penns would suffer a huge setback if Jamaican high schools could not participate for any reason, including financial or visa restrictions.

"I think it would be a major impact," he said. "The Jamaican crowd would dwindle greatly, although I can't be sure of that ... ."

Johnson said he, along with other representatives of the University of Pennsylvania, visited Jamaica in February. Among the issues dealt with in "long discussions" among various entities, including at least one representative of Jamaica's Govern-ment, was how to assist the high schools. He said the discussions were held with corporate leaders, not the high schools, and focused on areas of "development", including generating sponsorship.

Additional meetings have been scheduled. The topic of financial support, he explained, is always on the table.

"It's clearly a difficult problem," said Johnson. " ... Our desire is to help."