Philadelphia, Pa. - The character of an event's host venue can greatly enrich its appeal. Winners and losers are often determined at Amen Corner at Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the Masters. Centre Court at the All England Club, the host site of Wimbledon since 1877, radiates a hallowed history unlike few other sports events.
Add to that list Whoop (a roaring, rising melodic sound made when reacting to an impressive move) Corner on the final turn of the Penn Relays track inside Franklin Field in Philadelphia. Any of the millions who have been a part of the Penn Relays as a spectator or runner know well of the drum-beaten, scream-echoing sounds that emanate from the section. The 116th Penn Relays took place last Thursday through Saturday.
Whoop Corner is where races are won and lost, where fatigue fells those who allow over-exuberance more than fitness to dictate their paces and where the more highly skilled runners who are patient and wise claim fame.
Whoop Corner reverberated more richly than normal on April 24, the final day of the annual three-day Penn Relays carnival that attracts thousands of mostly high school and college runners. For the first time in his career Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt competed in a 4x100m race for a Jamaican pro team. He last ran at Penn in 2005.
Bolt ran the anchor leg in an estimated 8.79 seconds (his 100-meter world record is 9.58) and pulled away from an even field to help his Jamaica Gold team win by a few meters over international teams that included two from the United States.
"For me, it's always the crowd," he said after the race. "The starter was telling the crowd to be quiet (at the start). That's one in a million. When you go anywhere else in the world, they are quiet. You get in front of Jamaicans and they make noise until you ask them to be quiet."
It was a fitting gesture by Bolt to run so well Saturday in a stadium filled with thousands of Jamaicans in a record crowd of more than 54,000. Before he took the baton, Bolt stood at Whoop Corner long enough for Jamaican fans to get a good glimpse of the country's most chreished athlete.
Most fans gathered at Whoop Corner are Jamaican. They cheer, sing and bang drums in support of runners who make demonstrative moves on the far turn.
"It's hard to meet a Jamaican who does not like track and field," Irwine Clare, the founder of Team Jamaica Bickle, a New York City-based group that supports Jamaican athletes at the Penn Relays, said Friday. "It's in our blood. "
The support includes arranging and helping pay for hotel rooms during the Penn Relays and providing a food tent, which was located in a parking lot less than a quarter mile from the stadium entrance near Whoop Corner.
Clare said his group expected to provide more than 5,000 meals to Jamaican runners this year at the Penn Relays. Top Jamaican runners, including Bolt, have stopped by the food tent since the group began the operation at the Penn Relays in 1994. "We were concerned that young Jamaican runners were not eating the right food when they were here," he said as dozens of young Jamaican runners dined in the tent.
Bolt did not stop by this year. He said Friday during a press conference that the cooler than normal weather would likely keep him inside for most of his stay in Philadelphia.
But many Jamaicans still felt his strong presence at Whoop Corner. Clare compared the scene when Bolt walked into the stadium to another proud Jamaican moment at the Relays, when it's 4x100m relay team in 2008 beat the U.S. for the first time at the meet.
"It was deafening," he said.
Much of the noise came from Whoop Corner. Tens of thousands of runners have absorbed the far turn feeling at Penn, including American Sanya Richards-Ross, a Jamaican native and 2009 world champion in the 400 meters.
"You come off that curve and you have a big lead and you feel like the person is right behind you the way the crowd reacts," she said Friday during a press conference. "Sometimes you want to tighten up, but then you look at the (video) screen and you say, 'oh, man, they're 20 yards behind me.' You don't know if they're cheering for you or against you. I've learned to not let that interfere with my race pattern."
Runners have used the noise for inspiration, including one who walked me down during the anchor leg of the 4x800m relay at the 1979 Penn Relays while I was a runner for the University of Maryland. I received the baton with about a five-meter lead over Gideon Terer of Fairleigh Dickinson University and held him off until the end of the final turn.
When I heard the crescendo of whoops I knew I was in trouble. While Terer received a boost from the crowd's reaction, I felt only unease. Juiced by the Jamaican rhythms, Terer floated by me and won by a few meters.
My feeble finish contrasted greatly with the effort put forth that year by Maryland teammate Renaldo Nehemiah, who set the first of his many world records in the 110m high hurdles as a sophomore two weeks before the Penn Relays. He pulled off perhaps the greatest feat in Penn Relays history when he anchored Maryland to victory in the 4x400 meters.
In a 2003 story written by long-time track writer Walter Murphy, Nehemiah reflected on the impact the sounds coming off the final turn had on his 4x400m relay finish.
When I got the stick, it appeared to me that the other runners were almost already taking the 2nd turn and headed down the backstretch. Angered and really embarrassed, I took the stick and sprinted a hard as I could to make up some ground. I figured I'd hold on again until the final turn before hitting the wall.
But, wouldn't you know that those fans on the third turn are wild and crazy! As I was approaching the turn just trying not to fall apart, I felt, heard and sensed the roars starting to get louder. I even heard the chanting and the drums from the Jamaicans. I immediately tried to respond by starting my kick just to add a last minute desperate surge before dying. I just ran harder and harder as the noise got louder. And before I knew it, I could see (Villanova's) Tim Dale and the finish line about 20 meters in front of me. I dug one more time with all I had, and surged past a fading Dale and believe I won by a couple of meters. (split-44.3!)
One wonders how Dale, a 45-second 400-meter runner, recovered from the loss. Earlier this month, I attended a track meet at my alma-mater and reminisced with teammates about fond memories, which included Nehemiah's 4x400m relay run. A former teammate of Dale's at Villanova was among our group. One of us wondered aloud how Dale reacted to the loss.
"He's still not over it," the former teammate said with a chuckle.
For some, the fallout from Whoop Corner is not a laughing matter.