Athletes compete in the 2011 Drake Relays. This year’s event, which began Wednesday, includes more than $500,000 in prize money, which helped draw in more than 20 Olympic medalists.
Athletes compete in the 2011 Drake Relays. This year’s event, which began Wednesday, includes more than $500,000 in prize money, which helped draw in more than 20 Olympic medalists.

With dozens of Olympians set to compete, organizers of the Drake Relays aim to recapture some of the magic of the 2012 Olympic Games in London and to use the high-profile event as a springboard to bring even more track and field competitions to the city.

The 104-year-old track and field event has raised the bar this year. The addition of Hy-Vee Inc. as a presenting sponsor allows the Relays to offer more than $500,000 in prizes to the winners, with $50,000 purses offered to the winners of select track events and $25,000 purses offered to the winners of select field events.

Another $120,000 in prize money will go to the winners of the Hy-Vee Road Races, 6-kilometer, 10-kilometer and half marathon competitions that will be held in conjunction with the meet.

The prize money is the largest of any track and field event in the United States, said Brian Brown, director of the Drake Relays, and is $20,000 more than what is offered at the IAAF Diamond League, an annual series of track and field meets that attracts top competitors. It is also the first time the Drake Relays has offered a monetary prize.

The larger purses attracted nearly 50 elite athletes, including Iowa’s own Lolo Jones, and 20 Olympic medalists who will compete in this year’s event. A series of races dubbed the London Rematches will feature at least one medalist, Brown said.

“Hy-Vee really stepped up as a presenting sponsor and provided us with those resources,” he said.

But an impressive cash prize isn’t the only thing helping the Drake Relays grow. Increased efforts by Des Moines to bring in large track and field events, including the USA Track & Field Championships and the NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships, has helped raise the meet’s profile. The benefit is mutual: Drake Stadium renovations and the Relays’ ability to attract more world-class athletes helps Des Moines attract more national sports events.

Key to those efforts was the $15 million renovation the stadium underwent in 2006, which improved irrigation, leveled the field and expanded the area for field events. The infrastructure enhancements provided stability and security to the Relays, Brown said. “It was built to put on great track meets,” he said. “We’ve hosted a championship event every year since.”

Mark Kostek, vice president for sports and development at the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau and a former Drake Relays director, agreed: “From where we were in 2005, where we were just hosting three track meets a year – the Jim Duncan Invitational, the state high school track meet and the Drake Relays – this is huge. We’re bringing in visitors we didn’t have. We’re driving economic activity, and we’re improving quality of life.”

The health and vitality of the relays is important for Des Moines, said Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the convention and visitors bureau. “It’s one of the larger events we host, but more importantly, it’s an annual event,” he said.

Edwards said the Relays consistently fills the majority of the hotels in the metro area and infuses between $4.5 million to $5 million into the local economy, a number that has grown in the past 10 years.

Kostek added that it’s not unusual for athletes competing in a championship event to also compete in the Relays to get a better feel for the track and the city. “More people want to come watch the Drake Relays and higher-profile athletes want to compete,” he said.

He has high hopes for this year’s event, believing the prize money and high number of Olympians will make Des Moines and the Drake Relays “a major player” when it comes to hosting future meets.

Another capital campaign is in the works to provide further improvements to Drake facilities, including adding an indoor track that can also be used as a warm-up area. Leaders hope this will increase Des Moines’ chances to bring a track-and-field Olympic trial to the city in 2020.

Des Moines lost out to Eugene, Ore., for the 2016 Olympic Trials. According to Oregon officials, the city, which is home to the University of Oregon, held trials in both 2008 and 2012 and saw an economic impact of $37 million in 2012.

“Drake and the athletes are the obvious beneficiaries of the new practice facility,” Kostek said. “But from a hosting perspective, it makes Des Moines a stronger bidder. It’s important for us to support the Drake Relays and to support track and field. USA Track and Field, the NCAA, they look at how many people are in the stands and what the event looks like on TV, and that factors into their decisions.”