- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

DES MOINES, IOWA (AP) - John L. Griffith wasn’t trying to create one of America’s enduring track and field institutions when he established a relay carnival at Drake 100 years ago.

Like any good athletic director, Griffith was just trying to save some money.

Griffith, Drake’s athletic director and track coach, needed a way to get his athletes interested in track earlier in the spring, when the promise of warm weather in Iowa can be a shaky at best.

Drake didn’t have the budget to travel to indoor meets in St. Louis or Kansas City, so Griffith instead invited area schools to Des Moines for an outdoor meet that, in theory, would combine early season conditioning with competition.

Thus, what is now known as the Drake Relays was born. In a snowstorm, no less.

A total of 82 athletes and about 100 spectators braved the spring storm for the inaugural event in 1910, according to “The Drake Relays: 50 Golden Years,” written by former Des Moines Tribune writer Robert H. Spiegel.

With fans building fires for warmth while watching such events as the Sunday School Relays _ won by University Place Church of Christ _ the first edition of the meet wasn’t an obvious hit for Drake.

But Griffith, an enterprising sort who would later become the first commissioner of the Big Ten, kept at it because he figured he was on to something. About a decade after its birth the meet had truly arrived, drawing hundreds of athletes and more than 6,000 fans.

The Drake Relays turn 100 this week, and thankfully there’s no snow in the forecast.

It’s now a staple of the American spring outdoor track season, a weeklong celebration with more than 7,000 athletes from 66 countries, a bulldog beauty pageant and a Saturday session that’s expected to be sold out for the 44th year in a row.

Competition opens Wednesday at Drake Stadium and concludes Saturday.

Drake is throwing quite the party to honor its centennial. The festivities will be highlighted by a gala event Thursday to honor the meet’s 20 Athletes of the Century, with honorees parading down the street adjacent to the stadium in classic cars.

“Anything that reaches the age of 100, a person or an institution, it’s an epic event as far as I’m concerned,” said Paul Morrison, a Drake athletics historian who will attend his 71st meet this week.

The 100th edition of the Relays also figures to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. At last count, officials have lined up 43 athletes who’ve competed in the Olympics. That more than half the number of total competitors in the inaugural meet.

“It’s certainly something that we would have expected for this year, that we’d be able to attract some of the top individuals in all of the events we’re offering. I think we’ve been able to do that at the highest level,” Relays director Brian Brown said.

Among the notables scheduled to appear is distance star Alan Webb, who’ll run the mile Saturday.

Webb gave fans one of the iconic performances of the Relays two years ago, when he shattered Steve Scott’s meet record in the mile with a time of 3:51.71.

Webb went on to set the American record at 3:46.91 in Brasschaat, Belgium, three months later. Webb didn’t live up to expectations in 2008 though, failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in the 1,500 meters, and Drake will be one of the first measuring sticks of his fitness level as he attempts to return to form.

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner will return to Drake after a one-year absence and run the 400. Wariner, who was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 400 from 2004 to 2007, ran the 200 at Drake in 2006 and 2007.

Des Moines native Lolo Jones, who always makes it a point to compete in her hometown meet, will shoot for her fifth straight crown in the 100 hurdles. Jones was selected the outstanding women’s performer last year when, four months before her memorable tumble in Beijing, she set a meet record of 12.74. Two-time outstanding women’s performer Perdita Felicien, who missed last summer’s Olympics with a foot injury, will run against Jones in her first Relays appearance since 2005.

Meet officials believe this year’s men’s shot put field is the best they’ve ever had, with five of the world’s top 10 shot putters from 2008 set to compete. Christian Cantwell, owner of six Relays titles, will face off against Reese Hoffa and two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson.

The Relays will also hold a women’s discus event for the first time since 1988. The field is headlined by reigning Olympic champion Stephanie Brown Trafton.

But as has been the case since Griffith looked through the snowflakes and saw promise some 100 years ago, the late-spring weather is often as important as the field.

The forecast calls for sunny skies with temperatures in the low 80s on Thursday and Friday, then a high near 70 for Saturday’s final session.

“Whenever the weather cooperates, magic happens on this blue oval,” Brown said.

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