What had always been a unifying force in America’s melting pot city, the one thing that drew every New Yorker and visitor together, has now been blown apart by Hurricane Sandy. So count the ING New York City Marathon as another victim of last Monday’s vicious storm, except this is a constituent that even FEMA can’t help put back together.
Last night’s decision to cancel the 42nd NYC Marathon by city officials and race organizers has left behind a nasty split. A city already in tatters and tears is that much more divided than the day before. Opposing sides in the marathon cancellation debate stare in shocked disbelief at the insensitivity of the other side, leading to arguments and recriminations posted on chat rooms, e-mails and text boxes world-wide.
From “it was the only thing to do”, to “what a wasted opportunity to rally the city”, the reaction has come as swiftly as the miles up First Avenue on race day, but as opposite as one curbside to the other. Needless to say, the overwhelming, though not 100%, view from the marathoner’s side is that the decision to call off the race was wrong-headed.
“I met a girl who flew 20 hours from Australia,” texted my friend Rich Jayne from the Haile Gebrselassie Marathon expo booth at Javitz Center which continued unabated today till 5 p.m. “There was another guy with only a year to live and this was to be his last marathon. When the announcement was made we had three foreign runners in our booth. NYC is not making friends.”
While runners from the top professionals to the 40,000th placer are disappointed and upset for time and money spent and paydays lost, NYRR President and CEO Mary Wittenberg hinted at a graver concern at last night’s press conference in Central Park.
“We became concerned that runners would not receive the welcome they were used to,” she said, adding, “it’s been tough on the volunteers and staff, too, anyone associated with the marathon.”
The city’s mood had turned toxic.
“I heard organized violence was being planned,” wrote a friend in the city, “and runner’s safety was the main concern.”
My brother, who is a surfer not a runner, told me long ago, “you take away basics like electricity, food distribution, clean water and waste management and you’ll see chaos very quickly.”
We saw civil society breakdown seven years ago in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina. Today, we see evidence of the same in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Emotions remain raw, people are on edge, and vision has become narrow and confined.
One salvage operation that the city and NYRR considered was staging an elites-only competition on the 2007 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials course in Central Park. Since pro runners only contest two major marathons per year, and put as much as three months training into one competition, this cancellation represents a huge financial hit. Yet even that limited scenario – perhaps 60 runners – was considered too much for the tender sensibilities of those stricken by the storm.
As 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 stopping the NFL game scheduled in equally ravaged New Jersey on Sunday. Tell me how taking away one of the limited chances for one’s livelihood will help those hurt by the storm?”
But here’s the difference, Jim, between even the world’s biggest marathon and American professional sports. The New York Knicks, who beat the Miami Heat 104 – 84 last night in Madison Square Garden, and the Brooklyn Nets, who play the Toronto Raptors today at the new Barclays Center, are members of the NBA. And the New York Giants, who host the Pittsburgh Steelers tomorrow in the New Jersey Meadowlands, are in the NFL. Meaning privately-owned teams are playing in privately-owned arenas, not independent contractors participating on publicly owned thoroughfares. On top of which, people are invested in those games and those sports, in part because they have been formed into coherent leagues and seasons.
The New York City Marathon is seen as a one-off event staged on public property mainly as recreation for citizen athletes raising money for charities. And part of why the marathon is seen that way is because that’s the way it’s been sold. For better or worst, running abandoned racing as its centerpiece ten to fifteen years ago in favor of participatory fund-running. We haven’t been selling action, we have been peddling herding competence with a charity swirl. The tail began wagging the dog.
Sure, people take the marathon seriously as a life challenge, but nobody accept a small hard-core takes it seriously as a professional sporting event. Besides, look at this year’s New York City field. Except for American Meb Keflizighi, the 2009 New York champion and 2004 Olympic silver medalist, who in the general public would give two blinks to whether Wilson Kipsang, Moses Mosop, or Stanley Biwott won this year’s race? And how many New Yorkers do you think could identify Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana as the 2012 Women’s Olympic Marathon champion? There is no star power, no fan interest, and the paydays are a pittance by other sport standards. And that’s the point, running isn’t a pro sport as far as the public is concerned. So cancelling the event is no skin off anyone’s teeth except the anonymous runners themselves.
Thousands of runners have been left stranded, wallets emptied, hearts broken. But their lives haven’t been shattered. There will be other opportunities for the vast majority of entrants. The same cannot be said for thousands whose sorrow has much deeper cause, and whose dreams will be much more difficult to resurrect.