The Kansas Relays began with the help of legendary Kansas football coach John Outland who was involved with the Penn Relays while growing up on the East Coast. With the help of KU basketball Coach Phog Allen, the first Kansas Relays took place in what was then the brand new Memorial Stadium in 1923. Since then, the meet has evolved into one the premier track and field events that annually feature more than 5,000 of the top high school, college and professional athletes from throughout the world.
The recent running of the 84th Relays proved to be a historic edition. Three new events were added, including two in a brand new locale. The 2011 Kansas Relays brought the meet to the people of Lawrence as two events, the Elite men's shot put and the Elite men's long jump, were contested downtown, marking the first time a street event has ever taken place in the United States. While popular in Europe, street events were a relatively unknown concept on this side of the pond until eight of the world's top shot putters put on a show for a crowd of 2,500 at the intersection of Eighth and New Hampshire. Canadian thrower Dylan Armstrong won the inaugural and immensely popular event.
The following day, the region's top jumpers converged one block away for the Elite men's long jump with Nebraska's Nicholas Gordon claiming the title. However, it was Sunday's Paralympic 100-meter dash that proved to be the most the impressive of the new events. Double-leg amputee Blake Leeper lept into the hearts of the Memorial Stadium crowd with his stunning run, taking the crown in what would have been a world-record time (the event was not a sanctioned T43 Class race). Leeper posted a time of 11.32 seconds, beating out the heavily favored Kortney Clemmons, who is a current Kansas track and field volunteer assistant coach, doing so on two prosthetic legs. His efforts led to him being named Most Outstanding Male Athlete, beating out thousands of competitors for the title.
The Kansas Relays have become a favorite stop for elite athletes in recent years as a result of intense refurbishment. Under the direction of former meet director Tim Weaver, significant changes in the meet resulted in a new vision for the Kansas Relays and an unparalleled speed of success. The institution of the GOLD ZONE brought about Olympic-caliber talent in athletes such as sprinters Maurice Greene, Justin Gatlin, Allyson Felix, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Lauryn Williams, as well as other former Olympians including six-time Kansas Relays 400-meter hurdle champion Bershawn 'Batman' Jackson and former Missouri thrower Christian Cantwell.
The addition of the Mega Vision VideoBoard at Hershberger Track created an instant buzz as well. With cameras placed all around the stadium, fans were able to watch each event live on the big screen and witnessed instant relays from multiple angles, award ceremonies, and on-field interviews in a seamless format. The crowd now enjoys a detailed view of each victory and defeat.
The early years featured the likes of great Midwestern athletes in likes of Tom Poor, Jim Bausch and Glenn Cunningham of Kansas, Ed Weir of Nebraska, Jack Elder of Notre Dame and Tom Churchill of Oklahoma. Equally impressive was the list of meet referees, including the inventor of basketball Dr. James Naismith, KU basketball All-American Adolph Rupp, and Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.
By the 1950s, former KU track and field head coach Bill Easton fielded a team that formed an all-star meet all by itself, dominating the Kansas Relays and the entire national relays circuit. Athletes like Al Oerter and Billy Mills drew huge crowds to the KU campus and attracted top competition from around the nation. When Bob Timmons took over the reins of the Jayhawk program in the 1960s, the team didn't miss a beat. Jim Ryun won three consecutive outstanding athlete awards at the Kansas Relays from 1966-68 for a Kansas Relays best.
The 1970s saw the world's top sprinters come to the Kansas Relays as Missouri standout Mel Gray won three university titles in the 100-yard dash (1969-71). In the open 100-yard dash, Olympians John Carlos, Herb Washington and Ivory Crockett each took titles in the early 1970's. Bruce Jenner, the familiar competitor from Graceland College who later gained fame as a 1976 Olympic gold medalist decathlete, was the 1971 titlist as a collegian and also won the 1974 crown. His 8,240 points stood as a record until 1983.
Female athletes made their first appearance in 1962 in a limited number of events. By 1976, a full array of women's events was contested. Perhaps the most dominant performer ever on the women's side was former Nebraska standout and Olympian Merlene Ottey. She won most outstanding performer titles in 1981-83, and set 100- and 200-meter dash records. Former Iowa State standout and Olympic gold medallist Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco set a collegiate record in the 400-meter hurdles in 1984.
The 1980's continued the stream of top athletes to Mount Oread, including a contingent of stars from the Soviet Union in 1983. Many of their top Olympians made the historic journey to Lawrence and smashed several records. In addition, pole vaulter Joe Dial set the university and invitational vault records en route to being named the men's outstanding performer in 1985 and 1987. Dial also was the first high school athlete to be named as the Relays' outstanding performer when he competed for Marlow (Okla.) High in 1980. KU Olympian Scott Huffman etched his name in the Relays history book by being named the outstanding performer in 1988.
The meet fell behind the times in the 1990's and was cancelled in 1998 and 1999 due to renovations to Memorial Stadium.
But the 2000 Kansas Relays came back with a vengeance. Fueled by excitement about its return the two-year hiatus and an appearance by Kansas City native and world record holder Greene, the relays drew a tremendous crowd to Memorial Stadium. With some of the top prep action of the season, outstanding college marks, and a festive environment, the 2000 Kansas Relays made a strong statement about its place on the local sports scene.
The 2001 Kansas Relays, "An Olympic Return," brought over 30 Olympians to Memorial Stadium for the weekend. With a total of nine meet records set, the 74th running of the Relays went down as one of the best overall performances in the event's history.
The 2002 event celebrated the diamond anniversary of the Kansas Relays in style with a tremendous Friday attendance but ended on a disappointing note when lightning storms led to the cancellation of Saturday's program during the afternoon session. Similar successes were enjoyed in 2003 with record numbers of participants and teams, but again the meet was cut short by weather. But the sun was shining throughout the 2004 edition of the event as 16 meet records were set in front of huge crowds. The performances were so impressive that four athletes of the meet were named instead of the normal two. Also, the university named the first class of the Kansas Relays Hall of Fame.
The Kansas Relays continues to successfully reinvent itself, proving to be one of the top interscholastic meets in the nation year after year. Fans and athletes can count on new traditions and new records in future editions of the meet, as the Kansas Relays legacy lives on.