London, England — VIPs from the running world gathered beneath the London Tower Bridge this evening aboard the luxury river yacht the Silver Sturgeon for a welcome celebration to the 33rd Virgin London Marathon. But though the professional fields for Sunday’s races are the best in the world this year, and perhaps the best in London’s illustrious history, not surprisingly the topic most under discussion remained the terror attack at Monday’s Boston Marathon.
Race directors of America’s two largest marathons, Mary Wittenberg of New York City and Carey Pinkowski of Chicago, huddled together to consider what the industry as a whole might do in response rather than just what the six World Marathon Majors might put forward. Then first year London race director Hugh Brasher, son of event co-founder Chris Brasher, addressed the crowd welcoming them to the city, but also remembering the loss suffered in Boston. Hugh next introduced defending men’s champion and Olympic Marathon bronze medalist Wilson Kipsang of Kenya who spoke movingly in the name of his fellow athletes.
“We would like to express our condolences to those who lost loved ones in Boston,” he began standing on a staircase overlooking the crowd. “But we will run feeling free. We won’t worry about security when we’re running. We are ready to run well on Sunday, and maybe break the course record or even the world record.”
Many of the top athletes were on hand mingling with race officials from all over the world. One who wasn’t in attendance was marathon world record holder Patrick Makua of Kenya who remained holed up in his room at the Tower Hotel. Makau has publicly stated his fitness is at a high, high level, and coming after the disappointment of being named to the 2012 Kenyan Olympic team, then being told he wasn’t going to go, nobody has more motivation for Sunday’s race. But one just wonders with this much iron in the field whether hesitance and tactics might not trump pure speed, as we saw in Boston as well. The pace makers for Sunday have been assigned a 61:45 half-way goal. The women’s pacers are looking to hit 1:09:30.
Earlier in the day after an organizing committee meeting, I sat down with London’s chief executive Nick Bitel, and asked if anything fundamental had changed due to the Boston bombings.
“London Marathon co-founders Chris Brasher and John Disley founded the race on six pillars,” Nick explained. “The first was to show that on one day at least humanity can be united. The only difference is in how quick or how slow. This year, that pillar is even more important than ever.
“What has come out (of the Boston tragedy) was a great feeling of camaraderie,” he continued. “Athletes from all sports and people from all walks of life have offered their support. We have always felt that we were valued, but now it’s like we’re treasured.”
Sporting events have been targeted by terrorists before. Nobody who was alive at the time can forget the tragedy of the 1972 Munich Olympics, or that Atlanta was targeted by a bomber in 1996 during their hosting of the Games. What is different now is that while the shock still registers, the response is immediate as the innocence has long since departed.
“When we heard the news on Monday we instituted an immediate security review,” Bitel told me. “We have contingency plans with extra resources depending on the incident. And we determined that yes, we do need to bring that out. So we worked with the mayor, and upped communications within three hours. “
Bitel said the event e-mailed every participant, and texted every volunteer leader. The whole strategy was to communicate, communicate, communicate.
“Not to say we shouldn’t be scared,” he confided. “London has been attacked before in her pubs and the underground. But we don’t want to see a North Korea (Pyongyang) Marathon like last Sunday. I saw pictures, and there were 800 runners and not one person on the side of the road. We can’t create a sterile environment.”
In fact, the opposite seems to be the direction the city is taking. As the legion of news accounts, books and stories coming out of World War Two can attest, there isn’t a more resilient people under fire than the Brits. Not surprising, perhaps, that we Yanks still retain some of that DNA.