Standing barely five feet tall, 84-year-old Herman Mancini is hardly an imposing physical specimen. But he's an expert in getting athletes to toe the line.
As chief clerk of the Penn Relays, the oldest and biggest relay meet in the U.S., Mancini is responsible for sorting the meet's 12,000 runners into neat packets before sending them onto the track for their races. This year's Penn Relays, held April 22-26, were the 60th in which Mancini participated. As he prodded the colossus toward timely completion from his perch on a metal platform five feet above the crowded paddock in Philadelphia's Franklin Field, Mancini, a gregarious man with a perpetual tan and white cottony hair, said. "We are never behind schedule. I won't let it happen."
Mancini and his 20-person staff work to create order from the turbulent flow of human traffic into the cramped, multisection paddock. The uniqueness of the Penn Relays is in its inexorable tide of competition, from high school to college to open categories. Mancini keeps those human waters coursing onto the track by imposing his own athletic socialism: No one runner is more important to him than the entire show.
Dave Wottle found that out in 1973, the year after he won the 800 meters at the Munich Olympics. He and his Bowling Green (Ohio) State teammates had come to Philadelphia one day after setting a U.S. citizens' record in the four-mile relay at Drake University in Des Moines. "I was trying to get psyched up for the race and concentrating on what I had to do, and I remember somebody telling me I couldn't wear my hat on the track," says Wottle, now dean of admissions and financial aid at Rhodes College in Memphis. "They didn't tell me I couldn't wear it at the Olympics, so they weren't going to tell me I couldn't wear it at the Penn Relays."
Mancini refused to let Wottle out of the paddock. "If I let him wear a hat, someone else will want to wear a sombrero," Mancini says. In an unusual move, meet director Jim Tuppeny overruled Mancini, and Wottle got to wear his hat, but Villanova beat Bowling Green.
When Mancini began at the Penn Relays, in 1938, he officiated the hammer throw. Four years later he was promoted to assistant clerk. Back then the small number of competitors allowed registration to take place on the track's infield. Athletes had space to warm up, much as they do today at the Drake Relays or Tennessee's Sea-Ray Relays, the other premier relay meets, which have far fewer participants than Penn. Now, Penn runners must loosen up on the crowded sidewalks outside Franklin Field, and once in the paddock, they don't even have room to stretch.
"That's just part of the Penn Relays—getting pushed around in the paddock," says Joetta Clark, a three-time Olympian who competed as a New Jersey high school runner and later for Tennessee.
Mancini became top assistant clerk in 1949 and took over as chief in 1966. By then the clerking area had moved to its current home at the head of the track's first turn. Mancini's assistants arrange runners into their various events, check them for the proper spikes (one-eighth inch) and attire and send them toward Mancini, atop his command post in front of the final paddock. With his back to the track, he shouts orders into a bullhorn: "Face the wall. Leadoff man, move out. Follow the leader. Hey, you, get in line. Follow the leader. Number 2 man, move out." He rarely watches a race.
In 1972 Mancini and his wife, Ida, moved to Plantation, Fla. When he was 65, he began jogging to lose weight and developed into a champion runner in his age-group. His running career was curtailed by open-heart surgery in 1992, but Mancini remains fit by jogging three miles a day.
He also maintains a full officiating schedule. In addition to the Penn Relays—from which he receives no salary and to which he pays his own way each year—he was an assistant clerk at last year's International Paralympic Games in Atlanta and works at meets in Florida. One of his grandfathers lived to be 105, so there is little indication that Mancini will slow down anytime soon.