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.