DEVASTATING CHOICE FOR A DEVASTATED CITY

FINISHED

A visibly emotional NYRR President and CEO Mary Wittenberg stood alongside New York City Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson in the New York City Marathon media center tonight in Central Park to explain the cancellation of this year’s ING New York City Marathon.  In the end it came down to the mounting, and near universal, criticism of the city and NYRR’s decision yesterday to move forward with the marathon just six days after the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy.

“It became clear throughout the week that the marathon, one of the best days in the life of the city, had become divisive and controversial,” said Wolfson to the collected media.  “It grew over the course of the week, and those of us who love this city, and those of us who love this race recognize it wasn’t the marathon if it wasn’t a unifying event.”

With the “highest of hopes” and best of intentions, Ms. Wittenberg and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg thought that by staging the marathon as planned in the wake of the devastating storm that they could help heal the city, as the marathon had previously done after 9-11.

But the 2001 marathon was seven weeks removed from the grim day the Twin Towers fell in lower Manhattan, one of the sections of the city which took a heavy blow on Monday.  The difference in time made all the difference.  The seven-week time frame in 2001 gave the city a needed grieving period which then allowed the marathon to serve as a mechanism of healing, resurrection and defiance.  The six-day window between Sandy and Sunday’s marathon was simply too small to accommodate the same arc of emotions, especially when so many people were still dealing with shattered lives rather than merely disappointed racing dreams.

New Yorkers were in heavy opposition to holding the marathon, many runners, too. Even the New York Police Union asked for the race to be postponed.

“Everything was discussed,” said Wittenberg when asked if there had been any discussion of moving the marathon to another date.  “We began with what could we run?  We talked about postponing it, but runners from around the world and nation were here now.”

“We talked about having a ten-mile race,” added Wolfson, “but it didn’t make sense.  It’s the five-borough race that unifies the city.”

Even an elites-only option around 2007’s Olympic Trials Marathon course in Central Park was considered before it, too, was set aside as inappropriate for the times.

“Helping New York was the whole idea,” continued Wittenberg, sensitive to the charge of myopia.

In that light, the NYRR instituted the marathon Race to Recover campaign in conjunction with Thursday’s initial decision to go forward. And with its partners, sponsor ING and the Rudin Family, they had established a $2.6 million donation to kick start the effort.

“We hoped that it would build and build, like a telethon on TV around the country and the world,” Mary said.

“Nobody who came to the marathon wanted to contribute to the pain and suffering of people,” Wolfson acknowledged.  “In difficult times people give as they can. Writers write, people who build houses build houses.  Runners run. So runners wanted to run as a show of unity and strength. But a lot of New Yorkers didn’t see it that way.”

As the week progressed and the pictures and first-person accounts accumulated – especially in the borough of Staten Island where the race starts at Fort Wadsworth Park – vivid testimony revealed the levels of devastation, and the amount of work that lie ahead.  You didn’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the winds were blowing.

“How would it sound to people on Staten Island, “you can’t drive on the bridges or get clean water or gas for you car, but on Sunday we will close the bridges, bus runners there, and hand them water along the route,” said a friend with family members on Long Island. “I just can’t believe they would go ahead with it.”

Just imagine if they had pressed on.  The backlash which eventually did turn the tide would have certainly become toxic, perhaps even existential.  Remember, the sport of road racing is populated, if not by the top 1%, then at least by the top 20%, give or take.  When so many of those cast into darkness, displaced and dispossessed on Staten Island belong to the lower 80%, to cling to a decision based on facts alone, even if those facts were in the right, could have made 40 years of built-up goodwill go all wrong.

This sport is predicated on city permits.  If it ever came to a head between the thousands who run (even if they contribute to city and charity coffers) and the millions who don’t, and the millions begin to see not fitness and health but narcissism and self-indulgence, the whole sport could blow apart, the best of intentions notwithstanding.

So congratulations and condolences to the city and the NYRR for this wrenching, but right, decision. Remember, ours is a sport of delayed gratification.  And our time will come again.

END

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14 comments on “DEVASTATING CHOICE FOR A DEVASTATED CITY

  1. easschmidt says:

    Perhaps having an elite-only event in Central Park would be a good solution. Those guys are banking on the day of the race to be the day of the race. Their training peaks for it and they depend on the “payday” garnered in appearance fees. Don’t you think, Toni, that having a low-key elite event would bolster the credibility of the marathon as a professional running event and not, like you said, just a “parade”?

  2. Peter Gambaccini says:

    I’m extremely and adamantly opposed to this decision, and I hope I’ll have the chance to write about it.

  3. Toni Reavis says:

    I certainly agree in principle. In fact, I suggested after 2007 that the NYRR stage the Pro race on Saturday on the four-loop Central Park course, and the People’s race on the five-borough layout on Sunday. But once again we are considering such things not in the abstract, but in the context of the emotionally weakened city. Almost anything that involves perceived recreation or which would require even a scintilla of city services would, in my mind, not be well received by the public. A full stop was what was called for and announced. Nothing less would suffice, unfortunately.

  4. Michael Halko says:

    A myriad of resources are available in Central Park and at the Expo. Redirecting them to the place of true need is the appropriate action. The dividends will be apparent down the road.

  5. Toni Reavis says:

    Michael,

    In full agreement. Hopefully (and probably) NYRR is on the same page.

  6. Jim Gerweck says:

    Anyone who would object to an elite-only race in Central Park should now turn their ire to stopping the NFL game scheduled in equally ravaged New Jersey on Sunday. Tell me how taking away one of limited chances for one’s livelihood will help those hurt by the storm.

  7. Scott Brown says:

    While I can’t really mount a solid defense for going ahead with the race, and one has to agree that there are more important things then running, I can’t help feeling that canceling was an easy option, a kind of low hanging fruit and if people were really serious about diverting resources there are plenty of harder but more effective ways to elevate the suffering.

    Anyway arguing this is akin to beating a dead horse so the best we can do is wear this decision
    with a smile! Just don’t try to cancel too many of our races! ;)

  8. Brian Baker says:

    Why is it okay for the governor of New Jersey to reopen the casinos in Atlantic City, for the New York Knicks to play a game in the city last night, and the New York Giants to proceed with their game tomorrow (with nary a whisper of opposition), but heaven forbid the marathon, in some fashion, go on? Aren’t the same people still in need of storm relief? Do we want to play games while those people are suffering? Couldn’t those resources be better utilized for storm recovery, too?

    As always, running gets the short end of the stick. I still think it as a mistake to cancel.

  9. Andrew says:

    Can’t agree with you on this Toni. The degree to which this hurts the charities and businesses involved with the marathon far outweighs any optical issues. You can say that the resources are going to go elsewhere, and that’s fine, but this would have been an opportunity to raise tens of millions of dollars for charity with a live nationwide television audience, not to mention the people on the ground.

    To me, this is throwing up a white flag. The decision to hold this race was a profile in courage, but the decision to cancel it simply because of the backlash is a profile in feebleness.

  10. It’s not recreation for elite athletes; it’s their job. They’ve already put in their months and months of work, and now they won’t see a paycheck for it (and if NYRR gives them an appearance fee, they’ll only see a fraction of it). Plus, some may see decreased salaries or appearance money for 2013 because they were banking on having a fast marathon time from 2012. These people only have two or three opportunities to be paid per year. If you did your job faithfully for months, then are told you wouldn’t be receiving over half of your 2012 salary and that you’d be taking a pay cut for 2013, you’d be incensed. You also mention that running is a sport taken up by the top 20%, a figure I find hard to believe. Running is not golf, tennis, or triathlon, all sports which require expensive equipment and are dominated by rich nations. Running is a sport that is often used by Africans to escape poverty, and is a sport in which most elites are living at or below the poverty line. By cancelling their day to work, we have taken away something far more important than “recreation.”

    And if it’s truly about “perceived recreation,” then why are the Giants and Knicks continuing to play? I understand that they take up less resources from the city, but they still do require money, food, and blocked roads from spectators, and it is clear that there is an inequality present, where some people are allowed to do their job and others are not. It’s admirable that Heat player Dwyane Wade will be donating money to Sandy victims, but you also have to remember that he is in a financial position to do that. Professional runners do not make the kind of money that professional football and basketball players do, and while missing one paycheck for someone making millions may not be a big deal, missing one paycheck for someone who only receives two or three per year can be devastating. Most professional runners are barely making enough money to support themselves, and any opportunity they had to contribute financially may be gone. From Sports Illustrated: “Abdi Abdirahman, a Somalia-born American and four time U.S. Olympian, was planning to donate $10 per mile he ran to Sandy relief, and to ask everyone he knew to do the same, and also to ask his corporate sponsors to contribute. ‘Now I can’t do that,’ he said.”

    I am not from New York City, and will not speculate as to whether not diverting resources from the marathon is worth the loss of economy, donations, and charity that the marathon would have generated. I trust that the right decision was made by Bloomberg and NYRR to do what is best for the city. However, as I mourn for the city’s residents whose futures are in question, I also mourn for the elite athletes who have been thrust into a questionable future of their own. In doing so, we have created a new set of Victims, left devastated in Sandy’s wake.

  11. [...] DEVASTATING CHOICE FOR A DEVASTATED CITY [...]

  12. [...] my colleague Jim Gerwick of Running Times put it in response to my last post DEVASTATING CHOICE FOR A DEVASTATED CITY: “Anyone who would object to an elite-only race in Central Park should now turn their ire to [...]

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