The 91st edition of the storied competition returns to Austin March 28–31, packed with promise, star power, and the next generation of Olympic competitors.
Every spring, thousands of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators descend upon Austin to attend the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays. Donned in school colors and bursting with bravado, their annual arrival signals the return of the greatest athletic competition this city is home to. In fact, the event is the second-largest track meet—behind only the Penn Relays—in the United States. It’s now the mecca for elite competitors in everything from pole vaulting to the 100m dash from across the high school, collegiate, and professional ranks.
Long before its warm climate and booming economy attracted people from around the world, Austin’s winter (or lack thereof) brought the Relays to town. In 1925, uncharacteristically cold weather conditions compromised the Kansas Relays, leaving the door open for a new venue for the games. In stepped Clyde Littlefield, the University of Texas’ head track and field coach at the time, and Theo Bellmont, the school’s athletic director. Littlefield and Bellmont jumped at the opportunity to host the Relays, laying claim to what would eventually become a nationally-renowned athletic spectacle.
But the Relays was hardly an acclaimed event when first introduced. Its organizers went to incredible lengths to drive ticket sales, staging a number of off-the-wall publicity stunts in hopes of drawing in spectators. By all accounts, the most successful of these attractions took place in 1927 when three Tarahumara—a Native American people known for their long-distance running abilities—were invited to race from San Antonio to the stadium where the meet was being held. According to historical records, the epic 90-mile race ended in a tie.
At its inception, the Relays was a men’s-only competition. By 1963, though, women’s events were added. These days, the field of competitors represents countries, cultures, and ethnicities from across the globe.
Fun fact: Although the first Texas Relays was held 93 years ago, this year’s competition is only the 91st. The reason behind this: the meet was cancelled between 1932–1934 due to the economic strains of The Great Depression.
As the Relays’ notoriety has grown over the years, so has its star power. Here are a few of the top athletes who have taken center stage over the years, including several Longhorns and U.S. olympians:
Lauryn Williams, Miami — 100m
Williams’ displayed elite speed in 2004 when she set the current record for the women’s 100m dash. She’s since medaled in three different Olympics, including earning a gold at the 2012 games in London and a silver in the two-woman bobsled event in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Richard Thompson, Louisiana State University – 100m
Like Lauryn Williams, Thompson’s performance at the 2008 Texas Relays established his name in the event’s record books and put him on a path to stardom. Shortly after dominating the Relays as a member of the LSU team, he medaled twice at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and again in London while representing his home country of Trinidad and Tobago.
Trey Hardee, Texas – Decathlon (pictured)
A current resident of Austin, Hardee broke out in the 2006 meet. After setting the Relays’ current Decathlon record as a member of the UT track team, he went on to win a silver medal in the 2012 Olympic games in London.
Johnny “Lam” Jones, Texas – 100m, 4x100m relay
Jones stole the show at the 1977 Relays with a dazzling 100m run. A multi-sport athlete (he also played football for UT), he won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal games in the 4x100m relay and later played in the NFL.
Several Texas Relays record holders represented the USA Track & Field in the 2016 Rio Olympics, including:
Logan Cunningham – Pole Vault
Ryan Crouser – Shot Put
Trayvon Bromell – 100m, 4x100m relay
Shelbi Vaughan – Discus
Sandi Morris – Pole Vault
Unfortunately, Austin’s recent relationship with the Relays has been marred by the questionable actions of several businesses. A number of bars and restaurants—most of which are on Sixth Street—have shuttered their doors during Relays weekend the past few years, upsetting civil rights organizations who claim these moves were made to intentionally thwart the largely-black crowds of meet attendees.
Although those actions are alarming, they do not represent the overarching legacy of this incredible competition. Now nearing the 100-year mark, the Texas Relays are the crown jewel in the rich history of Austin’s athletic prowess. Indeed, no matter how many national championships UT’s sports programs win, the peak of this city’s competitive caliber resides in Mike A. Myers Stadium, the Relays’ home since 1999.